“Stuck under the Nakba tree”: barred from Palestine but unable to find comfort in Canada

Dr. Mowafa Said Househ was born in Edmonton to a family of Palestinian refugees. In an intimate and sometimes painful autobiography, Househ paints a portrait of an unhappy Muslim family finding it difficult to fit into a sometimes indifferent, sometimes racist Canadian society. Today, he has a Ph.D. and a part-time position at the University of Victoria. But despite what most people would call “success”, he has returned to live in the gulf region. Why can’t he find happiness in Canada? Read his book and find out…

Canada is a country of immigrants. Apart from the 2 or 3 million indigenous Canadians, the other 35 million of us are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.

Immigrants live in two cultures – the old culture from “back home”, and the new one in the new country. Most long to return to the comfortable embrace of the old country – some to live permanently, others just to visit to visit family and “soak up” the food, music and culture. Many “new Canadians” do in fact return regularly to visit family in India, Pakistan, China and elsewhere.

But one kind of immigrant is special. Palestinians cannot return to the old country. They have been permanently expelled from their homeland by Israel. Israel refuses to allow Palestinians to return to live in Palestine (now called Israel) – even using deadly force if they choose to. Some Palestinians who have become citizens of countries friendly to Israel (like Canada) are allowed to visit on a temporary visa, but usually after enduring hours of interrogation and sometimes even humiliation, by Israeli security on arrival.

After their expulsion in 1947/48, Palestinian families were scattered around the world. Over 3 million refugees and their descendants still live in the “temporary” camps set up for them 75 years ago in neighbouring countries. Many others live a kind of “nomadic” existence, never quite being able to settle down in the Gulf countries. The “luckiest” ones found refuge in Europe, the USA and Canada. But despite getting citizenship, most still have mentally their “suitcases packed and ready to return”. A return that the world keeps promising them, but doesn’t ever deliver.

Dr. Mowfa Said Househ’s book, “Under the Nakba Tree” is a thoughtful reflection on living as a Palestinian in Canada yearning to find a place he can call home. He describes a difficult life, as money problems and divorce put family relationships under strain, his own path as a rebellious and unhappy youth, and finally embarking on a serious and successful career as a medical researcher.

In his memoir, Househ observes that “Arab refugees are not the only people who have faced forced displacement from traditional lands and intentional settler policies of trying to decrease life chances in emerging generations.” He draws parallels between his family’s story of fragmentation and displacement from Palestine and the displacement of Indigenous peoples from their land in what is now settler Canada.

Dr. Househ has become a “success” in Canadian terms. But “success” hasn’t brought him peace or the acceptance he longs for.

That discomfort is shared by many other Palestinian Canadians. “I have been here since age 6 and have no great desire to go back to live permanently in either Palestine or Israel”, a Palestinian Canadian told me recently. “I have accepted Canada as my home.  However, Canada has not quite accepted me. Canadian culture, spoken or unspoken, is still largely a Zionist one in which Israelis are right and Palestinians are anti-semitic troublemakers.”

Today Dr. Househ lives in Qatar but continues to have a post as an adjunct Professor at the University of Victoria. Every Palestinian trajectory is different. But the themes of expulsion, rejection, acceptance and longing recur with frequency.

Under the Nakba Tree – fragments of a Palestinian family in Canada” is published by AU Press of Athabaska University.

Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about Canada’s response to the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.

Want to learn more about us? Go to http://www.ottawaforumip.org


  1. Thank-you, CTIP, for introducing this story. Thank you Dr. Mowafa for your courage and contribution.

    Nakba is not just a historic event and collective cause. It is a personal matter for every Palestinian refugee. It shaped our destines and impacts our experiences as we navigate the world. I believe that every Palestinian refugee’s life will remain incomplete without implementing the Right of Return to historic Palestine, and without the “international community” acknowledging Nakba and its consequences. Palestinian struggle for Return is more than a political right. It is a personal path for healing.

  2. But despite getting citizenship, most still have mentally their “suitcases packed and ready to return”. A return that the world keeps promising them, but doesn’t ever deliver.

    Depending on one’s point of view you could put the emphasis on “doesn’t ever deliver” or on “a return that the world keeps promising them”
    Either way this impossible promise is the crux of that tragedy

      1. As it is not a colonial-settler racist system, it has a good chance to stay the way it is for a very long time. Luckily, it has the military power to maintain the human rights of all of its citizens, no matter what their origin.

      2. Mr. Sigman, thanks again.
        Few would disagree with your assessment that Israel has the military power to defend the “human rights of all its citizens no matter what their origin” – IF IT WANTED TO.

        But according to many, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, B’tselem, and many others, Israel is not using its power to that end. In fact, it appears to be using it to defend a regime that many describe as “apartheid”.

      3. The problem is not Israel. It is the organizations, AI and HRW, whose founders have condemned them for their, what appears to be antisemitic, obsession with Israel. The UN, which also made such a report, has been condemned by two previous Secretary Generals for their, what appears to be antisemitic, obsession with Israel.

        As Israel does defend the human rights of all of its citizens, doing as well as any other liberal democracy, obviously IT WANTS TO.

        An Enemy of the People, an 1882 play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, foretold this tale.

      4. I am grateful to Mr. Sigman for laying out his views so clearly.

        He appears to think that the UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, B’tselem and a host of other organizations are all antisemitic. Is that the whole list, or are there others?

        How about the Association for Civil Rights in Israel? (https://www.english.acri.org.il/). It is a Zionist organization, but it does not claim that Israel defends the human rights of all of its citizens. Quite the contrary.

        I think that Sigman’s arguments are foolish. Whether he really believes them or not, I don’t know, and don’t really care much. But I don’t think they will fool anyone who is seriously interested in the issues.

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