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Patronato Postcard: A Visit To Chile's Little Palestine

Chile has the largest Palestinian population outside the Arab world. This neighborhood in Santiago is bound by a singular mix of history, soccer and headlines coming out of Gaza.

Middle East politics on display in the heart of Santiago
Middle East politics on display in the heart of Santiago
Christine Legrand

SANTIAGO — In the Chilean capital's working-class neighborhood of Patronato, you can be sure to find Palestinians of all ages at the Café Beit Jala.

As young people come in and out, the elders take their coffee, served with Arab pastries. Just two steps away is the country’s oldest Orthodox church, San Jorge, which the first Palestinian arrivals founded in 1917. The walls of the Santiago café are covered with pictures from Beit Jala, the village from which many of Palestinian families living in Chile emigrated.

"I'm the third generation of Chileans," says the café"s owner, Juan Bishara. His grandfather arrived in Santiago by boat in the 1950s. Bishara speaks Arabic with his clients, except with the youngest ones, who speak Spanish yet understand at least some of their ancestors' language.

The Palestinian community has two primary schools and one secondary school. "Our neighborhood is known as the Arab quarter, even though over the past few years a lot of shops have been opened by new immigrants, Koreans and Peruvians," Bishara says.

Chile is home to the largest Palestinian community outside of the Arab world. There are no official statistics, but some estimates put the number as high as 400,000. Most of them, 95%, are Christians, as were their ancestors, a fact that made the community's integration easier.

More than 80% arrived between 1900 and 1930, mostly from four villages: Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and Beit Safafa. The parents of historian Juan Sakalha came from the Christian village of Tayebh, located 12 kilometers from Ramallah. They arrived in Valparaiso in 1915 following a grueling journey that took them first to Beirut, then Marseille, Panama City, São Paulo and Buenos Aires. After all that they still had to cross the Andes — by donkey.

Most of the Palestinian immigrants were peasants or craftsmen who knew how to read, write and count. The majority settled in Santiago, the Chilean capital, though some ventured to other inland cities. "Each Chilean village has its priest, its policeman and its Palestinian," as the saying goes.

Soccer controversy

In Santiago, Palestinians chose the Patronato neighborhood for its proximity to the central market and because rents there were inexpensive. At the corner of the streets Filomena and Patronato, Jorge Shahuran's bazaar was, in 1910, where the first migrants used to meet, exchange memories and news of the country, and help the newly arrived to settle. In 1912, the community began publishing its own newspaper, Al Murshid.

The community's biggest source of pride, however, is Palestino, a professional soccer club founded in 1920. Palestino is still the only top division team in the world to play with Palestine’s colors. The team made headlines in January, when players appeared on the pitch wearing shirts on which the number 1 had been replaced by a map of Palestine as it existed before the creation of Israel. It seemed to bring them luck. Palestino won three matches.

Chile's Jewish community, with an estimated population of 70,000, protested against what it saw as as "politicization of soccer" and accused the Palestinian community of "importing to Chile a religious conflict, more than a territorial one." Maurice Khamis Massu, the president of Palestino, was then summoned by the national soccer governing body, which forbade players from wearing the controversial shirt and fined the club $15,000 dollars. Players responded by tattooing the banned Palestine map on their arms.

Since then, Palestino shirts, especially the number 11, have been selling like hot cakes. "Each victory for Palestino is a joy for the suffering Palestinian people," says Khamis Massu. "The pathetic events in Gaza have reinforced our links with Palestine and our origins."

The team president was three years old when his family emigrated to Chile following the creation of Israel. He's a member of a foundation that awards scholarships to Palestinian students and sends doctors to Palestine. Khamis Massu celebrated earlier this year when the Union of European Football Associations decided to reject Israel's bid to be one of the hosts of the Euro 2020 championship.

Palestino is one of several organizations involved in what is known as the Federación Palestina de Chile (Palestinian Federation of Chile), founded in 1985. "Its importance has grown over the past few years, as the conflict in Gaza worsens," the federation's president, Mauricio Abu-Gosh, explains. "Our goals are to alert Chileans to the Palestinian cause, to make Chile a friend of this cause, and to make sure that the Palestinian community in Chile remains united."

"Horizontal lobby"

The community has influence. Mahmud Aleuy, Chile's deputy interior minister, is of Palestinian decent, as are 10% of the country's senators and 11% of the lower house deputies. Nine mayors and 26 city council members also come from Palestinian families.

The political affiliations of the various public figures vary significantly. Abu-Gosh, nevertheless, talks about a "horizontal lobby" that has had a few "big victories." In 2008, Chile welcomed 130 Palestinian refugees fleeing the war in Iraq. The president at the time, Michelle Bachelet, received them at La Moneda, the presidential seat, on Nakba Day (Day of the Catastrophe, in Arabic), when Palestinians commemorate the violent expulsion of the Palestinian population in the territories where Israel established its state, in May 1948.

Bachelet, a member of Chile's center-left Socialist Party, also opted against attending a reception at the Israeli Embassy to celebrate the creation of the state of Israel. Three years later, Bachelet's conservative successor, President Sebastian Piñera, travelled to Palestine and recognized the right to a Palestinian state.

Bachelet returned to power in March. And in August, at the time of the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip, she recalled the Chilean ambassador. Several pro-Palestinian marches gathering thousands of people took place at the same time in Santiago. The Chilean ambassador only returned to his post after the announcement of a ceasefire. Several other Latin American countries made similar moves. Argentina, home to South America's largest Jewish community (250,000), did not.

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As-Salam mosque in Santiago. Photo: Natipdelac

Gerardo Gorodischer, the president of Chile's Jewish community, says that many Chileans are using their frustration's with Israel to discredit Jews in general. "There is an Anti-Semitism never seen before in Chile," he says. "We are living a pogrom and the Chilean government doesn't react. The wealthiest are considering leaving Chile for the U.S." Gorodischer notes that during some of the pro-Palestinian marches, Israeli flags were burnt. Palestinian leaders blame the incidents on "radicalized groups that are not representative of our community."

Gradual integration

"I am Chilean, Palestinian and Communist," Daniel Jahud proudly states. Jahud, 47, is the mayor of Recoleta, the Santiago borough where the Patronato neighborhood is located. He was elected in October 2012 after suffering three defeats in 12 years. He is also proud that Salvador Allende, the Socialist president toppled by the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), is buried in his borough. "Historically, the different religious communities were living in peace until the artificial creation of the Israeli state by the Europeans," he says. "This is not a religious conflict. The relationship is bad, not with the Jews, but with the Zionists who represent the Israeli government in Chile."

Integration in Chile has not been easy. The conservative upper class considered Palestinians to be second-rate immigrants compared to people arriving from Great Britain, Germany or France. Decades later, some Palestinian families are now among the wealthiest in Chile.

During the 1930s, they built huge textile industries, their own bank (Banco de Crédito e Inversiones) and an insurance company. The first years, faced with a hostile atmosphere, Palestinians only married amongst themselves. But as their social standing improved, marriages with people outside the Palestinian community became more and more common. More than two thirds of marriages now involve a non-Palestinian partner.

On the other side of Santiago, in the upscale Las Condes borough, the community has another important gathering point: the 27-acre Palestinian Club. The palm-tree dotted facility rests at the foot of the snow-capped Andes and boasts an Olympic-size swimming pool, tennis courts and soccer pitches. One thing it doesn't have is Arabic architecture. Instead it's all bay windows and wood.

"All Chilean presidents have visited the Palestinian Club, from Pinochet to Bachelet," says the club's public relations manager, Anuar Majluf. A former head of the General Union of Palestinian Students, now in his 30s, Majluf confesses he feels Chilean first and foremost. But he admits that "the Gaza conflict reignited the assertion of Palestinian identity in Chile." Still, he moderates his words: "It’s not that we're importing the conflict, but rather that it matters to us."

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