From Palestine To El Salvador: The Story of Palestinian-Salvadorians
By: Noah Robertson/Arab American Contributing Writer
Up until 1918, present-day Palestine existed under the Ottoman Empire. As with any other empire or country, Ottomans left the empire in search of a new life with new opportunities. After 1908, Young Turk Revolution led to forced conscriptions and with World War I on the horizon. Many Palestinian families fled the Ottoman Empire or sent their sons away to avoid forced conscription. Following the war, with the Ottoman economy in ruin, many Palestinians left again hoping for a better future. But where did they go? All throughout South America, but especially to El Salvador.
Emigration From the Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman Empire did not just control present-day Palestine, but it controlled present-day Syria and Lebanon, as well as multiple other areas. Right before and after WWI there were massive migrations to South America from these three countries; but even before then, Arab immigrants were making it their home.
These immigrants were classified by South Americans as “Turcos” because of their Ottoman passports, which was meant to be demeaning and was associated with a lot of ethnic discrimination.
Between 1860 and 1914, 1.2 million Ottomans emigrated throughout South America. There was a mutual understanding between the Arabs that they were to spread themselves throughout South America so as not to “compete” with each other. This explains why there are many Syrians and Lebanese in some of the larger countries like Brazil and Argentina, and many Palestinians in smaller countries like El Salvador and Chile.
Initially, many of the immigrants arriving were Christians who made their living as traders. A lot of them sold religious handicrafts. Later, those escaping conscription and economic problems at home were also primarily Christians because they had ties to South America, which helped them immigrate and settle in to their new home.
Many Arab Muslims wanted to come too, but they did not have the same resources/connections at the time. These immigrants were classified by South Americans as “Turcos” because of their Ottoman passports, which was meant to be demeaning and was associated with a lot of ethnic discrimination. “Criollas,” who were considered the elites, perpetuated this name because of their European racial stereotypes against these immigrants.
There are several interesting stories about the Arab immigrant adventures of South America, but for this feature we will focus on the large and thriving Palestinian-Salvadorian population in El Salvador.
Early Success, Followed by Discrimination
Outside of the Arab world, South America is home to the biggest Palestinian population; one-fifth of them live in El Salvador. The majority of these Palestinians are from Bethlehem. Today, approximately 100,000 Palestinians in live in El Salvador – more than those who are currently living in Bethlehem because of the Israeli occupation.
With roots to the Holy Land, these immigrants began their lives in a new land selling religious souvenirs, which were popular with Central American Catholics. While they began as small traders and merchants, they had a lot of success in commercial and agricultural enterprises as well.
But not all things are perfect for these Palestinians. As often, success of immigrants can lead to jealousy by the natives. The Great Depression in 1929 only exacerbated these anti-immigrant sentiments with the Palestinians subjected to discrimination.
In 1933, dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez enacted an immigration law banning the arrival of Arabs along with other ethnic groups. Then, in 1936, he passed Decree #49 forbidding Turcos (Arabs) from opening, “new businesses of any type or even to participate in them as partners or to open branches of existing enterprises.” This rule included naturalized citizens and immigrant children born in the country.
There were other similar laws passed and Palestinians were banned from Salvadorian social clubs. Unfortunately, these laws, as well as general racism and xenophobia, led many Palestinians to stop speaking Arabic and change their names to be more Central American. They also began to marry outside of their own national origin in order to acclimate to their new home and culture.
Jumping forward to present-day, most of this discrimination has passed and new governments rescinded the discriminatory laws. Many successful businesses in El Salvador are owned by Palestinians. Though past discrimination has resulted in most Palestinian-Salvadorians not speaking Arabic. Despite this, they still celebrate their roots through food, cultural traditions, and a Palestinian-Salvadorian social club, Club Arabe.
Also in San Salvador one can find the Plaza Palestina, which is dedicated to Palestine, as well as a statue of Yasser Arafat (former leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization.) Even integrated into Salvadorian society, Palestinians retain the close-knit culture of the Arab World and this helps preserve their roots.
The Palestinian community of El Salvador is thriving economically and socially, but even more stunning is how they are now integrated into politics.
Palestinian-Salvadorians in Politics: Take 1
While economic and social success is important, being able to integrate into a local political system as former immigrants are even more impressive. Palestinian-Salvadorians have done just that: Beginning with the 2004 presidential elections, Antonio Saca and Jorge Handel Saca, two main candidates, both of Palestinian roots, ran against each other. Fun fact: They lived across the street from each other as kids.
Unfortunately, a right-wing candidate won the presidency, but as John Nasser Hasbun, a Palestinian-Salvadoran said, “Independent of who wins, the first feeling is one of satisfaction that our economic power will now be recognized at this level.” Though Handel did not win, he is also well-known for his role in the Salvadorian Civil War as an impressive guerrilla leader. Unfortunately, Saca was jailed for corruption, which has been endemic to El Salvador’s government.
Palestinian-Salvadorians in Politics: Take 2
Then, in 2019, another Palestinian-Salvadorian won the presidential election. His name is Nayib Bukele. Bukele won 54% of the vote and broke the post-civil war two-party system. His achievements, as well as those of Saca and Handel, show how integrated Palestinians are into Salvadorian culture, economics, society, and politics.
Palestinian-Salvadorians have come a long way making an impact and a name for themselves and the Arab World in Central America.
There is some controversy around Bukele and his friendly relationship with Israel. He visited Israel on a state-sponsored trip and they have multiple mutual partnerships. In addition, El Salvador (especially former right-wing leaders) have a history of friendship with Israel. Then again, El Salvador has recognized Palestine on the international level and pulled its embassy from Jerusalem. Though there are many other complicated issues in the Israel-El Salvador relationship, those do not diminish the thriving Palestinian community in El Salvador.
Palestinians have made their mark in El Salvador and though they may not speak Arabic any longer and may have more Central American names, they do not forget their roots. Their success and integration into Salvadorian society, from the discrimination they faced and their classification as Turcos, is very impressive. Palestinian-Salvadorians have come a long way making an impact and a name for themselves and the Arab World in Central America.
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