A world away from Gaza, Palestinian Americans in this New Jersey community hold their breath

By Dakin Andone, CNN

Paterson, New Jersey CNN  — 

Yusra Matari was eating lunch across Main Street from the apartment where she spent part of her childhood when an elderly woman two tables over asked where she was from.

“Me? Palestine,” Matari said. “Beit Anan,” she added – her family’s village in the West Bank.

The woman smiled. She, too, is from Beit Anan, she said, and she recognized Matari as the girl who did some of her growing up in that apartment above her husband’s grocery store. It had been years since she’d seen Matari, now a 32-year-old attorney for victims of domestic violence.

The older woman held her hand out, about waist-high, to illustrate how small Matari was the last time she saw her.

Then, the two embraced.

“Palestinians, it doesn’t matter if we met for the first time, or after 20 years,” Matari said later. “We all know each other.”

Scenes around Little Palestine in Paterson, New Jersey, on November 15.

It was a snapshot of life here in northern New Jersey, especially in South Paterson — a neighborhood locals call Little Palestine, or Little Ramallah — which boasts one of the largest Palestinian American communities in the United States.

It was also a brief reprieve in an otherwise weekslong waking nightmare for the close-knit Palestinian American community, both here and beyond, as they watch from a world away the mounting death toll of Israel’s continued war and siege on Gaza in response to the October 7 attack by Hamas.

Some 1,200 people were killed and about 240 kidnapped when the militant group attacked Israel that day. In the weeks since, Israel – with the stated goals of destroying the militant group and retrieving the hostages – declared war in the Palestinian territory, home to more than 2 million people.

Since then, Israel has killed more than 11,000 people in Gaza, while tens of thousands have been injured according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in the occupied West Bank, citing medical sources in the Hamas-controlled enclave. Nearly 1.6 million have been displaced, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

What pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli supporters want you to know

Whether they have family in Gaza or the West Bank, Palestinian Americans here in northern New Jersey live with an unrelenting sense of dread – a mix of fear, sadness and anger – they told CNN. They don’t sleep. They can’t eat. Many grieve over loved ones killed, while others hold their breath, praying desperately their relatives pick up the phone next time they call.

Their collective pain is tangible, as is their love for their ancestral homes and, for many, the resolve to one day return. In the meantime, the survivor’s guilt is pervasive.

“We feel so guilty to be alive,” said Haneen Albalawi, 35, who grew up in Gaza and whose family remains trapped there. “We feel guilt when we eat. We feel guilt when we drink water. We feel guilt when we sleep.”

“We feel guilt, actually, in every single thing we do here,” the northern New Jerseyan told CNN by phone, “because they have nothing … and they are slowly being killed.”

Main Street honored as Palestine Way

South Paterson looks like many other business districts in towns across the US, with a main street lined by restaurants, clothing boutiques, jewelers, convenience stores, barber shops and gas stations.

But a stretch of Main Street here is formally known by another name, Palestine Way, and it’s easy to see why. There are nearly as many signs written in Arabic as in English, including at the Chinese restaurant, which advertises halal food with a neon red sign, as do many neighboring Middle Eastern restaurants and grocery stores. Mannequins in the boutiques’ windows model hijabs, and the smell of shisha wafts outside a hookah lounge.

The Palestinian flag – black, white and green stripes, with a red triangle pointing out from the hoist – is everywhere.

“We took ownership of this place in many ways, and we tried to keep growing it,” said Rania Mustafa, the executive director of the Palestinian American Community Center just over the city line in Clifton. “You feel the sense of belonging – and not necessarily like you have to put up a front or feel different.”

Rania Mustafa, Executive Director at the Palestinian American Community Center in Clifton, New Jersey, stands outside PACC for a portrait on November 15.

In an upstairs room at the center is the framed resolution, passed last year by the Paterson City Council, designating Main Street for five blocks between Buffalo and Gould avenues as “Palestine Way.”

The text of the resolution traces the history of the Palestinian community here back to the 1930s, noting the first generation “struggled with language and culture.” But they overcame that and found new opportunities. They are entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers and homeowners, it says. A city councilman, the municipal court’s chief judge and the city’s chief attorney are all Palestinians, it notes.

The resolution passed unanimously.

Every day bring a ‘new scar’

That sense of belonging is perhaps more important now than ever as neighbors cling to one another for support. The Palestinian American Community Center, whose mission is to strengthen and sustain Palestinians’ ties to their heritage, serves as a kind of anchor – a place to gather, to learn, to practice civic engagement, to play.

Details inside the Palestinian American Community Center in Clifton, New Jersey, on November 15.

Indeed, when Mustafa woke up on October 7, she called her sister – who was to teach a cooking class at the center that day – to ask if her daughter could catch a ride.

“You haven’t checked your phone yet,” Mustafa’s sister said, “have you?”

“I spent the next three hours on my phone, crying uncontrollably,” Mustafa recalled to CNN. “Because I knew what was to come. And I just couldn’t – all I could think of was that, like, so many people are gonna get killed now. That’s all I could think. I’m like, this is gonna be horrible.”

Noreen Rashid, a 21-year-old who like Mustafa grew up in New Jersey, had a similar reaction to news of the Hamas attack, she told CNN. She wondered what it would mean, in turn, for her parents’ families in Gaza.

“I knew that, whatever the repercussions were going to be, were going to be hell,” she said.

Her family lives in that hell now. Six of her family members have been killed in Gaza, Rashid told CNN. Among them were her little cousins, 12-year-old Nouran Allouh and 10-year-old Razan Allouh — two of the more than 4,700 children killed in Gaza since October 7, per the Palestinian Health Ministry in Ramallah, which draws its figures from sources in Hamas-run Gaza.

It’s unclear how exactly the girls were killed, Rashid said, but they had stepped out to fill a bucket of water to use as a shower when the family heard a noise — a sniper, they believe — and looked out to see the sisters lying dead on the ground.

Noreen Rashid's younger cousins, 12-year-old Nouran Allouh and 10-year-old Razan Allouh.

Their father Ahmad Allouh “lived for his daughters,” Rashid said, describing him as headstrong and firm, a protector – the kind of man who built his daughters’ bedroom furniture himself. Their killings cast him immediately into a state Rashid’s grandmother likened to a psychosis, the 21-year-old told CNN.

Despite his family’s pleas, Rashid’s uncle went outside to cover his daughters’ bodies, she said. And he lay down between them to say goodbye.

“And then they shot him,” Rashid told CNN. “They killed all three of them.”

While much of the world’s attention is on Gaza, denizens of the West Bank have not necessarily been spared: Some 176 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers or settlers since October 7, the Palestinian Health Ministry said 10 days ago.

One of them was Matari’s 20-year-old cousin, Musab Matari, who she says was fatally shot by Israel Defense Forces soldiers this month. A group had gone into a local olive orchard for a barbecue, Matari said, when the soldiers allegedly opened fire, striking her cousin. It was two hours before anyone could retrieve him, and by then, he was dead, she said.

They don’t know whether he died instantly or slowly bled out.

“Is there an investigation? Who shot at him?” asked Matari, the non-profit attorney. “There’s no way to get justice. There’s no way to figure out who did this.”

The Israel Defense Forces confirmed to CNN that “to prevent unauthorized infiltrations near the area of the security fence” it “responded with live fire, and a hit was identified” around the date and location of Matari’s death but stopped short of identifying him as the victim.

Matari rejected as “unacceptable” the Israel Defense Forces’ characterization and said Israel routinely and without notice creates security zones in the West Bank where local Palestinians are not permitted.

Both Rashid and Matari described feeling like they haven’t even had time to grieve for their loved ones.

“Waking up every day, I have a new scar on my heart,” Matari said. “And before that scar gets to heal, the next day, there’s yet another scar.”

Rania Mustafa, Executive Director at the Palestinian American Community Center in Clifton, New Jersey, stands outside PACC for a portrait on November 15.

Rashid’s sadness is compounded by a degree of the surreal: She was in Gaza just this summer for a monthlong visit, her first in a decade. Everyone keeps telling her how lucky she is to have seen it.

“Because Gaza’s gone now,” they tell her.

Rashid recalled how, during her visit, she’d sent her father photos of the outside of his childhood home. He couldn’t make the trip because of work but was happy to get the pictures. Soon after Israel’s bombing began, Rashid saw her father pull up those pictures, she said, and zoom in on his home – and cry.

She’s grateful to have gone to Gaza when she did, to have gotten to know Nouran and Razan. The girls loved dancing and American culture and celebrities, Rashid said. Nouran liked K-pop and was a fan of the group BLACKPINK. Razan loved jewelry and made it a point to take her big cousin to get coffee, knowing from social media Rashid was always drinking it.

They were already looking forward to Rashid’s next visit, she told CNN, wiping tears from her cheeks.

“And then,” they told her, “maybe we can go to America, and visit you guys.”

Inescapable survivor’s guilt

Immense guilt over being in America while their people suffer in Gaza or the West Bank pervaded nearly everyone who spoke with CNN for this story. Those who grew up in the United States felt twists of fate had spared them a life under Israeli military occupation, they said.

“Just through a turn of a couple events, I’m here and they’re there,” Mustafa said. “It’s not that we’re that far apart and that distant, that I couldn’t have been there as well.”

The United States’ continued allyship with Israel and its use of taxpayer money to provide that support adds to the guilt, Mustafa said. It feels like two parts of her identity are at war, she said, like one is literally trying to kill the other.

Albalawi, who spoke of feeling guilt in virtually every facet of American life, had spent most of her life in Gaza but always told herself she didn’t want to have kids there because they would be killed, she told CNN by phone. She didn’t want to leave her family or friends – Gaza is home to the most beautiful people in the world, she said – but five years ago came to the United States as a student, got married and had a daughter.

Still, Albalawi is plagued by worry over family back in Gaza and lives her own days phone call-to-phone call, message-to-message. If a call goes unanswered, she spirals as the possibilities unfurl in her mind. Did they miss the ring? Is the connection down? Or something worse?

Each day, her daughter asks about her grandmother, Albalawi said. They met in person once, when her daughter was just a year old, and she’s used to visiting on video chat.

“She always tells me, ‘I don’t want them to die,’” Albalawi said. “‘I want them to come here.’”

Rima Qasim, 63, has family in Ramallah, as does her husband, 69-year-old Adnan Khalil, they told CNN in an interview at their home on a quiet street in Clifton. She also has a cousin whose husband, son and granddaughter are in Gaza. Every two days, Qasim, who sits on the community center’s board, sends a message to ask after them.

Rima Qasim and Adnan Khalil pose for a portrait in their backyard in Passaic, New Jersey, on November 15.

“So far, they’re OK,” her cousin responds.

Even so, Qasim is devastated, she said – not just for the sake of her own family but for all her people.

She is proud to be Palestinian. Along with scores of framed photos of their six children and all their grandchildren, her home is adorned with art depicting scenes and people from her homeland. She wears a bracelet woven in the pattern of the Palestinian flag and a gold necklace with a pendant shaped like what many observe as Palestine: a single parcel encompassing what’s now Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

And she, too, feels guilty living in the US. “I cooked my grandson’s dinner, and I drove it over there. And the whole time, I’m thinking, ‘How lucky are we? I can feed my grandson.’”

Rima Qasim shows her love for Palestine with her accessories in Passaic, New Jersey, on November 15.
Rima Qasim shows her love for Palestine with her accessories in Passaic, New Jersey, on November 15.

Anger and hope

“It’s not just sadness,” adds her husband, Khalil, the editor of an Arab American newspaper. “Also, you will be angry.”

That anger is “generated,” he told CNN, by the way the US government and the Biden administration in particular have responded to Israel’s attacks on Palestinians. The couple – like everyone who spoke to CNN for this story – demand a ceasefire, and Khalil believes the conflict could end whenever the United States decides to make it stop, he said.

The White House has increased military aid to Israel and supported hourslong humanitarian pauses in the conflict. But the Biden administration opposes a ceasefire, asserting – alongside Israel – a longer break would give Hamas time to regroup and potentially launch another October 7-style attack on Israel.

This conflict, of course, did not begin six weeks ago but stretches across decades of pain and struggle, Khalil stressed. Both his parents and Qasim’s father were expelled from West Jerusalem in 1948, they said, a period of mass displacement of Palestinians known as al-Nakba, or the catastrophe.

While they’re furious with the US reaction to Israel’s response to the October 7 attack, Qasim and Khalil also expressed hope, pointing to younger generations and organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace that have called for a just resolution to the conflict.

Scenes around Little Palestine in Paterson, New Jersey, on November 15.

In spite of it all, the couple is determined to return to their ancestral homeland, they said.

“We love Palestine. We believe in Palestine,” Khalil said. “We hope, we dream to live in Palestine.”

Asked if she believed she and her husband would return, Qasim was unequivocal:

“We’re going next year,” she said. “Absolutely.”

CNN’s Zeena Saifi contributed to this report.


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