"All of a sudden we had two suitcases on a boat going to the unknown."-Teta Leila
Vibrant watercolor paintings, cooking skills that surpass those of Martha Stewart and warm hugs to spare. These are a few thoughts that come to mind when thinking of Leila Khoury Nimry. Born in 1935 in Haifa Palestine, Leila currently resides in Amman, Jordan alongside her husband Fouad Nimry. Leila is a loving mother of four and grandmother of many.
In "Meet Leila", Leila opens up about what it was like growing up experiencing occupation and apartheid which led to the exodus of her and countless others.
"They were hovering over Haifa, supposedly to bomb, drop bombs.
And we could see the projectors of the British Army - I'm not sure if this is too political - so we used to go down into the basement for shelter. Over time my mother had to make a living space down there for eating and so on because we didn't know when there would be sirens. As a child, I could see the projectors of the British army, the light that they used to project in order to see the planes, but in my innocence, things became vague. Between light and darkness, between day and night. One day it was a happy childhood, then all of a sudden another miserable childhood. It was not really miserable but the difference between these two things happening to us as children, we couldn't understand."
"After that, the Germans lost the war so the British took over in Palestine. They had a mandate over Palestine. Finally, they gave Palestine to the jews, they handed Palestine to the Jews. And the Arabs had no say whatever in this. They are not supposed to be equipped to combat the Jews, realistically the Jews then, there was a massacre of, I forgot the name, a whole village was killed, totally killed. The Jews killed the Palestinians, that's how people fled Palestine. They used to go to a village, a famous village, it was “Mghadarah".
They came to the village and killed everybody."
"So people used to, you know, one village next to this one they used to flee because they were afraid. So everybody was fleeing, everybody was fleeing. So there was this, how you say this in Arabic, there started to be a departure."
"Without people having instruction of what to do,
there was no one to divert them
or tell them what to do,
it was chaos.
It was chaos."
"So everybody was fleeing, everybody left the country, Haifa and all the neighborhoods, the villages around, were fleeing the country. It was really “mghadarah”. I know of one event, people used to take their belongings, whatever they could for example mattresses, pillows, some took documents, others left documents. One mother I know, after she had left her village to cross the border, discovered that she, instead of taking her baby, she took the pillow and covered it with a blanket. This was one of the things that I still remember until now, this event. By accident! People were scared! Yallah Yallah, she went into the crib, she grabbed the object quickly assuming she had grabbed the baby, but it was a pillow. This is one thing that is still in my mind, how things were."
"Crossing the borders, we used to see the people, there wasn’t TV back in that time, but later on in life, they were showing us how people were crossing the borders and how many people died on their way. Old people couldn’t survive, they couldn’t even be carried. So they were left behind. Babies, the mothers couldn’t feed them. So it was a tragedy. And so, as a child, between living in a happy life, beautiful life- I don’t want to say a rich life, but everything was available, we didn’t miss out on anything. All of a sudden, we had to leave the country.
We were, my family, my father died then [when I was younger]. My mother, and us are four children. But one sister had to stay behind, she married later. My mother and I we left the country, we were teenagers, very young teenagers. Imagine that we had no support, because we had support in our country, we had land, we had provisions, we had resources, we had everything. All of a sudden we have nothing. All was left behind. We had to leave the country, we were the last family in the neighborhood, in the whole neighborhood, to leave that area. My mother insisted she wanted to stay. But then, a friend of ours told her that we are all leaving and you cannot stay behind. As a widow with four children, we are leaving and you have to come with us.
We were the last people to leave the country, we were going into the unknown.
We became refugees.
From one state of being well off in our country,
then all of a sudden we were refugees."
"Of course we were not stereotypical refugees living under a tent, we had relatives in Beirut [Lebanon]. They were the brother and sister of our grandmother. Our grandfather had a house in Beirut so he lived with my grandmother in Jerusalem and the other relatives, Alexander and Lisa, they lived in Beirut. So they were like Lebanese people; a beautiful house. But then, it became impossible to stay with them. We had to be on our own and life was not very nice.
But, we had a good mother and we were good children, we never gave her trouble. Being refugees all of a sudden, we were not nagging saying “ what a life we have, why we are like this? blah blah blah”. No. All along the way, we were good children with a good mother. And I am always, until now, always surprised how my mother who lived lavishly with servants in her house, not doing any chores, all of a sudden she was doing those chores. We never heard her complain, she was like a hen holding her chicks under her wings. We were always comforted we were always warm, we were always loved. But I still feel like I’m a refugee.
I don’t have a country, I don’t even have a national emblem. What Palestine? It's not even my Palestine anymore. I don’t feel like its my Palestine.
Still, I am a Palestinian no matter what."
"I live in Jordan now. We lived in many places. Of course we had to flee Lebanon because of the Civil War in Lebanon. We lived in Libya, then we had to leave Libya because their was a Coup d’état. Gaddafi took over. So, it was always, you know, like gypsies. From one place to another. Well, I am an old woman now of 85 years, so imagine a child born in 1935, lived through the war in Middle East from the Germans and British and then the “hujrah” from Beirut, then we had to leave the country and then we went to Libya and then we had to leave Libya because of that war and then we came to Beirut then we had to leave Beirut because of the civil war. So it was always a step. Never a tranquil life, like you are in your country and you live there and you are happy.
Being a refugee since then, we are always like gypsies from one place to another."
"Although I am not complaining that I live like a
gypsy, but not being in my roots makes all the
We lived in an apartment, a beautiful new apartment by the sea. We had nice neighbors, I went to school very close to the house which was important to my parents. I was, I don’t want to boast about myself, but I was a very good student. I remember there was an Arab teacher, she used to teach us french, and I used to correct her. I was 9 years old and I could read the news paper. I could read the testament (rasayil) in the church, in the church you have rasayil, rasayil 2adimeh and rasayil jdeedeh, I was there at 9 years and I could read this in the church. I was very bright actually and I had older girls in my class, I was maybe 10, 12 and two of the girls were 14.
We were very happy, we lived nicely, everybody was living happily. There were no poor people then. Everybody lived happily even in the villages, the villager people were very good people, very nice people, very polite, they had very rich resources. Its not that they lived in the village and they were poor. No, on the contrary, these people in the villages lived more richly than the others.
We had a nice school and I remember in school there was always a teacher that used to supervise us. We all had to exercise at school. We had a tennis court, we had a volleyball court and so on. So i was very active and the nun used to come and see the girls sitting, she would say “Of course, of course, leila is not here that’s why everyone is lazy and sitting!” Because I always used to be the one to excite them about exercise.
When there was Christmas, Christmas was something like in a dream, a dream come true. My father used to have a fresh pine tree and we used to watch him hanging the ornaments. Then there were no light bulbs, there was a clip similar to that of laundry clips, and this clip had a metal piece where he used to place the candle. So my father used to put this and he had to light because it was dangerous, so he was the only one who would do this. Then we used to sing carols and my mother was baking and we used to love the smell. Things in my days, in those days, a child could be able to dream.
Now, a child cannot dream.
A child doesn’t have any dreams.
Everything is artificial, everything is available, everything is there.
Gifts were only given on special times, for instance, on Christmas, Easter, birthdays, some days like this. We used to really take care of our gifts, play with them, and I used to remember when I left Palestine in 1948, it was then the tragedy of Palestine.
I had a doll and I used to keep it all these years until I left Palestine, and I could not take the doll because we did not have any place except two luggage cases to put our clothes, only.
We could not take anything else. Not our pictures, not our albums.
We left our house, we had a beautiful house actually. My father was a connoisseur of well-being, a bon vivant as they would say, the furniture was like it came from a gallery, everything was tip-top, you had silverware always, bone china; we didn’t have like today plastic and glass. We lived well.
So leaving things behind, thinking
Who is sleeping in my bed?
Who is using my clothes?
Who is going through our albums?
things like this.
These are things that were important and until now I remember and I think about it and I get sad, very sad.
When we used to have a new dress for an anniversary or birthday, a new dress, we used to smell the material that was new and nice and we used to appreciate the gifts. Now when people buy things for their kids, they’re kids say “what is this? my friend has a better one!” never appreciative this generation. But back then everything was important and we learned to appreciate the value of everything. Money, clothes, anything. We learned the basics to appreciate everything, the value of everything.
I was in a daze. I was confused, because we left in such a hurry. It was the last boat to leave Haifa, Haifa was on the harbor by the sea. The last boat to leave Palestine to go to Beirut.
I couldn’t explain my feelings. I was confused. But I had my brother, sister and my mother. It gave me warmth and security. But then, as a child, I couldn’t look above that. But it was not easy.
Where is my home?
Where am I on this boat?
Where am I going?
What's our destination?
It was the unknown.
At times, innocence took over and I could not sometimes feel, where am I?
In my place or in the unknown?
So it was difficult but always being secured because my family was there with me, my brother, my sister my mother. It gave me a bit of security.
We had to leave like gypsies. Taking our suitcase, leaving our country, leaving everything behind. Our happy, well lived life. All of a sudden we had two suitcases on a boat going to the unknown. It was a miserable journey, I am a very very serious sea sick person. I was miserable on my way from that point to the other point, until I reached the harbor in Beirut I was always throwing up. I was sick all the time. I am a terrible sea sick person and you can understand going on a boat that rocks.
I don’t remember what we packed in the bags because my mother packed. She packed our clothes, what we needed, nothing else. We packed the real real real necessary things. Our clothes. We didn’t have any passports then, no documents, no passports, nothing. We lived in our country, we didn’t need passports. We didn’t have any documents what so ever.
Saying Goodbye to her Sister
That was a tragedy. But knowing that she was following us made us feel easier.
But as it turned out, She couldn’t follow because the boarders closed the next day,
she stayed behind.