Research Officer for BBC Media Action in the Palestinian Territories
Mohammad Al-Seyouri in his falafel shop in Ramallah.
“Leaving your country is the hardest thing one can do. Once you leave, you will never be the same,” said Mohammad Al-Seyouri as he tended a bubbling vat of oil in his falafel shop in Ramallah.
The 57-year-old was speaking to Palestine TV as part of an episode of the debate programme Aswat Min Filesteen (Voices From Palestine) which focused on emigration and its impact on Palestinian society.
Mohammad left the Palestine Territories after school and spent 22 years in the US. But in 1995, he returned to his homeland and set up what is now a thriving business in one of the busiest streets of Ramallah.
According to Mohammad, “I lived a long, beautiful life in America. But there was always something missing. Your country, your home, is better regardless.”
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, approximately 7000 Palestinians decide to emigrate every year in search of a better, more financially secure life. Most of those who leave are between the ages of 15 to 25 and have a degree.
Aswat Min Filesteen brought together panellists – including the Palestinian National Authority’s Prime Minster Salam Fayyad – with over 100 audience members aged between 18 to 65.
The panel heard many moving stories and angry demands from the audience, including the story of 30-year-old Jarah Battah, an interior designer and artist. He left the country after the second intifada in 2000, as he found he could not follow his dreams in his homeland.
Jarah had trouble finding a steady job and was unable to sell any of his paintings so he first went to Abu Dhabi before moving to Saudi Arabia.
“You chase and chase and chase after money, but as time goes by you realise how important it is to be home. Home with my family, with my friends, in my country,” he said.
Another audience member, 29-year-old Jamalat Abu Jameel, expressed anger at the cost of such large scale emigration: “Palestinians are continuing to lose more and more important members of its society. We are definitely experiencing a brain drain.”
Definition of emigration
In response, Prime Minister Fayyad commented, “We need to redefine what we mean by emigration. If people are going aboard to work and gain experience, we cannot say there is a brain drain. Leaving Palestine to continue your education abroad or to work and gain experience overseas is very different from leaving your country and not returning again. These are two different things.”
And he had some tough answers for people demanding jobs in certain areas: “The Palestinian Authority has reached its limit of civil servants,” he said. “We have got to a point where our expenses are exceeding our revenue, and the civil service is not able to absorb 45,000 Palestinian college graduates every year.”
The debate was a fiery one and there were no easy answers.
But Aswat Min Filesteen is determined to keep raising such thorny topics and enable Palestinians to hold their decision makers to account.
From the BBC Media Action blog: