On 29 August 1969, TWA Flight 840 took off from Los Angeles for Tel Aviv via Rome. There were 116 passengers on board, including a young Palestinian woman called Laila Khaled. She and her accomplice, Salim Al-Issawi, hijacked the aircraft on the final leg of the journey, forcing it to land in Damascus. After releasing the passengers and crew unharmed, the pair blew the plane up.
Khaled said at the time that the intention was to get a number of Palestinian prisoners released and draw the world's attention to the justice of the Palestinian cause. A year later she tried to hijack an Israeli aircraft, but the plan failed and she was arrested in London.
That young woman became a national hero for the Palestinians, and her iconic image adorns walls all over the refugee camps within occupied Palestine and neighbouring countries. She remains a strong symbol of resistance to the Israeli occupation. Indeed, her picture greeted me above the entrance to a building in Sao Paulo, Brazil; not the first place that I would ever have expected to see it.
What's more, I was just as surprised to see Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali's signature cartoon figure "Handala" on the shutters of the shop on the ground floor of the same building. This was intriguing, so I asked around to find out who owns the building, and who lives or works there.
The block has more than 20 floors and is owned by a Brazilian bank. There are no offices inside, but there are plenty of people. In fact, a number of families have lived in it illegally for nearly six years, dividing the floors into rooms with wooden panels that are not entirely adequate but do provide at least some privacy. Apparently, they cannot be made to leave the building against their will. I was told about this by the three people who make up the administration team for the building. They are from Brazil's "People Without Land" movement, which defends homeless people in the courts.
There are families from Brazil, Bolivia, Syria, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt in the building. Most of the residents, though, are Palestinians, at least 15 families. They came to Brazil from Sbeineh Refugee Camp in Syria when the conflict there started in 2011. Each family has an average of four or five members, and there is a single Palestinian man from Iraq. They all pay around $50 per month towards the building management, electricity, and water charges.
The residents face a lot of difficulties, as the building is old and not intended for housing. Moreover, there are issues with the water supply, which isn't suitable for drinking and has caused a few health problems.
All of the Palestinian families live on floors 9, 10, and 11, and there is no lift in the building. Instead, everyone has to go down and climb up the 1,500 stairs every time they want to leave the building and come back again.
Like all places around the world where refugees are gathered, those in this building in Sao Paulo have harrowing tales to tell. Hassan, for example, lives on the 11th floor with his wife and new-born son. His arduous journey to Sao Paulo started in Sbeineh Camp from where he went to Ain Al-Hilweh Camp in Lebanon before heading for Brazil. In Ain Al-Hilweh, he stayed with his parents and five other families in a single room. This was not unusual for displaced Palestinians coming from Syria.
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are prohibited from working in more than 70 occupations and are treated very badly by the "host" community, so Hassan looked for every opportunity to leave the country. After getting married to his cousin, he was helped by some friends to get to Brazil in 2015. His friends are in the same building, he told me.
"The Brazilian people welcomed us with open arms," he explained. "Their treatment of us was very respectful, and the government allows us to work. I rented a small stall on the street that I called "Palestina Casa" ("Palestine House") and bought and sold everything that I could." He found no racism from the people." "In fact, all of my customers were Brazilians, and my monthly income was around $300. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, I have been unable to work for more than 10 months."
Life in the building in Sao Paulo is just like being in a refugee camp, said Hassan. "We live as if we are in Sbeineh, fulfilling each other's needs and watching for each other's comfort. If someone complains, you find everyone in the building trying to help to make things easier. In Syria, we were people of one camp; today we are people of one building, and we must stick together."
Hassan is actually staying outside the building temporarily until his wife recovers from the Caesarean birth of their son. She cannot cope with the stairs so he is renting a room nearby at a much higher cost than usual due to the pandemic. "My wife is my strength in this," he said with tears in his eyes. "I cannot continue without her, and I will not find support for me in this life like that which she gives me."
I also met a man who lives in a small room of less than 10 square metres. It is very basic, so it was a shock to find 63-year-old Professor Issam Issa there. From Palestine originally, he had been staying in Iraq, where he obtained a doctorate from the University of Baghdad. He also has a doctorate in genetics and animal breeding from Romania. He came to Brazil after he was displaced from Al-Ruwaished Refugee Camp in No Man's Land between Iraq and Jordan. The camp was closed after Brazil agreed to host its Palestinian residents.
The professor has lived in the building for more than two years and told me that he is lonely after separating from his wife and children due to the harsh conditions of exile. Covid-19 has also prevented him from finding a job.
The entrance to Prof. Issam's room. He didn't want us to photograph the room itself (Photo credit: MEMO)
How could a science professor not find a job? "When I came to Brazil, I studied Portuguese and passed the test to qualify me to teach in Brazilian universities," he explained. "I got a one-year contract at a university in the south of Brazil, but local graduates are given priority here. So I have been out of work for five years."
Intisar is a 60-year-old Palestinian woman who has lived in this building for five years. She was a successful interior and fashion designer in Syria before she left Sbeineh Camp with her brother to escape from the war. Crossing into Lebanon, she lived in Shatila Refugee Camp in Beirut, staying for a year before making the move to Brazil.
"My husband and children tried hard to leave Syria and join me in Lebanon," she told me, "but they couldn't because they have Egyptian nationality and needed an entry visa. This was not possible in the wartime circumstances, so they went to Egypt and I stayed in Lebanon."
In Egypt, her children were unable to continue their education because of her Palestinian nationality. The plan was that she would go to Europe via Brazil and meet them there, but it didn't work out that way.
"Here in Brazil, I worked by sewing clothes with a Brazilian woman who befriended me and secured my housing and work until I was able to save the cost of the tickets for my husband and children to come to Brazil as well. Now my husband works in another city for around $200 a month. I do not see him very often because of the distance and the pressure of his work."
She too finds the stairs in the building very difficult to negotiate. "Climbing them can take me up to two hours. And then I am sick for the whole day." Tragically, she now has cancer and is unable to work.
There are many similar stories among the refugees in this building, many of whom are very well qualified and experienced in their fields. All they desire is to live with dignity. Like many Palestinian refugees, the world over they are generous and hospitable. Their main concern is being unable to find work during the pandemic so that they can take care of their families and neighbours.
I understood from the residents that there used to be many more Arab and Palestinian families in the building but they have moved to French Guiana, an overseas department of France on the Atlantic coast to the north of Brazil. There, they are waiting until they can apply for citizenship and be eligible for state support.
After that, as French citizens, they will be able to move to Europe and possibly be reunited with family members who were separated during the war in Syria. When I asked those still in the building in Sao Paulo what they want, the answer was almost unanimous: "We want to go to French Guiana."