When Palestinians Crossed the Chilean Andes by Mule, a New Diaspora Was Born

Now the community’s deep historical and political roots are shaping the Andean country’s response to the war in Gaza

When Palestinians Crossed the Chilean Andes by Mule, a New Diaspora Was Born
Fans cheer for the Palestino soccer team in Santiago, Chile. (Lucas Aguayo Araos/Anadolu via Getty Images)

From the outside, El Emporio, a corner cafe down the street from the Santiago home of the legendary Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, seemed like any other shop: tidy dark green awnings, tile floors, a small seating area. Neighborhood regulars chatted out front with dog walkers and delivery workers. I ended up there on a recent weekday morning in February, already baking hot and trying to find a real coffee in a country known for its ubiquitous powdered Nescafe variety.

Inside the store, however, the ambience was a world apart. I was greeted by rows of spices, freshly baked baklava and the smell of strong Arabic coffee. Behind the counter a Palestinian flag was hung over elaborate mosaic wall tiles. Wearing overalls and a black T-shirt, owner Zakarya Abdallah welcomed clients — often tourists coming to the bustling neighborhood known for its nightlife — and chatted with regulars in spitfire Spanish, learned during his 20-odd years in Chile.

Like many in this small Latin American country between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, Abdallah is Palestinian. Born in Kuwait and raised in Jordan, he first came to Chile in the early 2000s, following his older brother who had struck out several years earlier in search of better economic opportunities. In an interview with New Lines, Abdallah explained that Chile appealed to the brothers because of the ease of starting one’s own business here.

“Getting a salaried job is not easy because you’re not from the country,” he said. But starting a business in Chile, one of the less regulated countries in the hemisphere, with a long history of Palestinian entrepreneurship, was more appealing. “Lots of people have shawarma shops, candy stores and minimarkets,” he said, adding: “If it doesn’t work here, you’ll go abroad again.”

Business initially boomed for Abdallah and his brother, who at one point owned four shops across the city. But widespread social protests in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic hampered their success and they were forced to close all but one of their stores. Despite the economic downturn, Abdallah stayed in Santiago, where he met his wife and is now raising his kids. His ultimate goal is to get a Chilean passport so he can travel to Palestine, a place he has never been. “I see a future here for my kids,” he said. “I tell them, this is their home but their home is also over there.”

Palestinians like Abdallah have formed communities across the globe. But with roughly half a million residents of Palestinian descent, Chile hosts the largest Palestinian community outside of the Arab world. In recent months, this community has become more visible — both domestically and internationally — with the conflict in Gaza. Chilean solidarity with Palestine has been notable in comparison to other countries in the Americas.

In the wake of the Oct. 7 attack against Israel by Hamas, and the ensuing counterattack against Gaza that has led to an estimated 30,000 casualties, Chile was one of the first countries to call for a cease-fire. In January, Chilean president Gabriel Boric joined Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in filing a joint request to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to investigate Israeli war crimes against the Palestinian people. In November, Chilean footballers wore Palestinian keffiyehs in solidarity with Gaza at a Chilean national championship match.

This solidarity is not without precedent. In the 1980s and ’90s, Palestinian liberation movements intersected with feminist and other Mapuche Indigenous movements. Members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization toured Latin America, stopping in Chile. It’s still common to see street art of Palestinian flags and women in keffiyeh scarves next to the names of Mapuche leaders killed or detained in southern Chile.

Today, Chileans of Palestinian descent are visible in politics, sports and culture. These include a well-known Communist Party mayor and activist, Daniel Jadue, and author Lina Meruane, whose books “Becoming Palestinian” and “Palestine in Pieces” have had critical success in the country.

In recent months, pop singer Elyanna has brought this diaspora group to the mainstream. The rising star, who’s been called the “Arab Rihanna,” was born in Nazareth and moved to Los Angeles at the age of 15. She is the daughter of a well-known Palestinian-Chilean singer, and regularly visits family in Chile. Her music, which mixes Middle Eastern and Latin rhythms, has struck a nerve and brought visibility to the Palestinian diaspora.

This shared history goes back roughly 150 years. Many Palestinians — primarily Orthodox Christians who began to arrive in the late 19th century with Turkish passports — ended up in the Patronato neighborhood of Santiago, just a few blocks from El Emporio, where they opened up shops, textile factories and other businesses.

While no one is quite sure why they chose to stay in Chile, one predominant theory is that entrepreneurial Palestinians, who began to migrate to the Americas later than other Middle Eastern populations, sought out countries that were less saturated and where they could easily start a business. After a monthlong boat ride, they arrived at the port of Buenos Aires, which at the turn of the century was experiencing significant levels of anti-immigrant backlash, or “Turkophobia,” including attempts to pass legislation to deport Arab populations. Seeking a more favorable situation, these intrepid first arrivals saddled up for a dangerous trek across the Andes mountain range by mule to reach Chile, often with little more than the clothes on their backs, explained Ricardo Marzuca, a professor of Arab Studies at the University of Chile.

In Chile, they found a more welcoming population and a favorable climate — dry and arid in the northern and middle regions, similar to Palestine. These first arrivals were joined by new waves of immigrants during the fall of the Ottoman Empire and after the 1948 Nakba, or catastrophe, in which Palestinians were expelled en masse from their land after the creation of the Israeli state.

“The Palestinian community in Chile is clearly an example of integration and economic success in general,” Diego Khamis, the director of the Palestinian Community in Chile, an umbrella group of Palestinian organizations, told New Lines. From Arica in the far north to Punta Arenas in the south, “Every town in Chile has a priest, a police precinct and a Palestinian shop,” he said, quoting a widely held saying with several iterations.

We were sitting on the patio of the Club Palestino, a sprawling country club that serves as a gathering point for the Palestinian community in Chile. The club was founded in 1920 and today about 90% of the members are of Palestinian descent. Palestinian motifs abound: There’s a kiddie pool in the shape of Palestine; a red, green and black statue of the letters PAZ, or peace; and a shop near the entrance that sells Palestinian goods, including hard-to-find Palestino FC jerseys.

Khamis grew up on Palestino FC, attending his first game in the ’90s. Born in Chile, a fourth-generation Palestinian immigrant whose great-grandparents came to the country from Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, he has visited the Palestinian territories on more than half a dozen occasions — buttressing a joint identity commonly expressed by members of the Palestinian-Chilean community. “We are and we feel profoundly Chilean, but of Palestinian origin,” he said. “I’m not a little bit from there and a little bit from here, but from here and from there.”

Today’s Palestinian-Chilean community is diverse, with a range of religious backgrounds, political leanings and income levels, he added. “In whatever area you look you will find Palestinians,” he said. “We are part of the idiosyncrasies and geographies of the country.”

According to Marzuca, this is in large part thanks to a conscious effort by immigrants to forge a Palestinian identity abroad, creating newspapers and cultural organizations. While these first immigrant populations often identified as Ottoman or Turkish, once in Chile they increasingly aligned with a Palestinian identity, he said. They became active in civil society and politics, with the first Palestinian Chilean voted into office in 1950.

Claudia Eltit, a translator and activist in Santiago, whose great-grandfather immigrated to Chile around 1900, remembers hearing about Palestine from her mother at an early age. “We’ve always been aware of the vulnerability of being Palestinian and how dangerous it is to be Palestinian in Palestine,” she told New Lines on the phone from the kitchen of her Santiago apartment.

Eltit, whose fridge was decorated with a “Palestina Libre” sticker and who wears a necklace with a map of Palestine on it, explained that as a Chilean of Palestinian descent she had experienced racism in Chile, which made her want to defend her people. Growing up, Eltit remembers being called “Turco,” an epithet attributed to Palestinians who had first arrived in the country. In high school, she joined a left-wing group advocating for the Palestinian cause. Through this, she began to see political and historical ties between Palestinians and other traditionally excluded groups. “I have always been aligned with the Palestinian cause and from that cause I feel empathy for those who are suffering,” she said.

For playwright Ana Harcha, whom I spoke to via Zoom, the strengthening of her Palestinian identity and her politicization were inextricably linked. In 2023, Harcha wrote and co-directed the play “Palestina Irreversible, Palestina Inexistente,” (“Irreversible Palestine, Nonexistent Palestine”), after a trip to explore her family’s roots.

Growing up in a traditional family, many of whom initially settled in the southern Araucania region in Chile before moving to Santiago’s Patronato neighborhood, she discovered a second layer of her Palestinian identity when she began to meet with diaspora members who came from different backgrounds. “I started to feel a different sort of Palestinian identity awaken in me, that wasn’t only linked to my family background, but that I saw more like a political calling,” she said. “I began to see the possibility of understanding Palestine as a paradigm, of the exercise of the power of states or a state over a people, of a laboratory of sovereign violence, of militarization, and so on.”

Khamis, at the Club Palestino, noted that despite the political polarization in Chile, both left and right had always been able to coalesce around the Palestinian community, including during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected socialist president, in 1973. “Chile’s position has always been very close to Palestine,” Khamis said. “Chile has never voted against a resolution for Palestine in international forums. The one who recognized the Palestinian state was a right-wing president: Sebastian Pinera. The beginning of the talks to open a PLO office here was with Pinochet.”

As we spoke, Khamis fielded various questions from colleagues about how to respond to a recent attack in Gaza, during which more than 100 people were killed by Israeli soldiers after a stampede started at a food distribution site.

Still, for all of the Palestinian-Chileans I spoke to, the question of how to support Gaza from afar had been a constant source of frustration since October. “It’s hell,” Eltit told me, her voice breaking. “They’re extinguishing Palestinians. They’re wiping us off the map. You’ll see people on social media and then they’ll disappear and you’ll wonder if they’ve been killed.”

As a member of the diaspora community, she felt like an “ambassador,” she added. “We have to be good citizens, we have to be very coherent, we have to be ‘socially respectable.’ Not everybody sees it that way, but I have always lived it that way. We have to be an emblem and show the world that we Arabs are good people, that we contribute to society, that we are always giving.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Abdallah, at El Emporio, who felt like he had been accepted in Chile. “We just show the best of ourselves.”

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