The Palestinians in Chile

The Palestinians in Chile
A Large Community, Fully Chilean, Fully Engaged for Palestine

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Protest in Santiago

14 October 2023
Comunidad Palestina De Chile

The Palestinian community in Chile , estimated at around 500,000 people in 2023, is generally considered to be the largest Palestinian community outside of the Arab world. Chilean-Palestinians have maintained a strong cultural and political connection to Palestine, through networks, institutions, and mobilizations. They have also played a key role in influencing Chile’s foreign relations toward Palestine and Israel.

The Making of a Palestinian Diaspora in Chile

The Palestinian presence in Chile is part of a wider connection between the Middle East and Latin America , which is defined by migration movements going back to the end of the nineteenth century. It is estimated that some 1.2 million Ottoman citizens migrated to the Americas between 1860 and 1914. Large communities from “Bilad al-Sham ” (present-day Lebanon , Syria , Palestine and Jordan ) settled throughout the continent, from Chile to Honduras to the United States . Most of the Palestinians in Chile have their roots in the Christian towns of Bethlehem , Beit Jala , and Beit Sahur .

What prompted Palestinians to move to Chile? Chilean-Palestinian professor Eugenio Chahuán has related the story of his ancestors’ move to Chile: Palestinian families sold religious artefacts and attended the world fairs in Italy , where Jorge Hirmas from Bethlehem met with the brother of the President of Chile, who invited them to Chile; he accepted the invitation and took Jorge Chahuán , and Jorge Mansour with him. The story of the “Three Jorges” is indicative of many who undertook this long journey--young, single Christian men whose families owned souvenir stores selling religious icons and were looking for new markets; they had funds to finance their trip and an open view to the world’ thanks to being educated in missionary schools. Historical records such as the Guía social de la colonia árabe en Chile published in 1941 document that the profiles of first-generation Palestinian migrants to Chile included people of diverse religions, towns of origin, and occupations.

Palestinian migration to Chile evolved across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, fluctuating according to political and historical events. The combination of forced conscription for Christians in the early 1900s and the deteriorating economic situation during World War I accelerated the number of arrivals to Chile; the majority of ancestors of Chilean Palestinians arrived around this period and in the years following the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1924. Emigration to Chile continued before, during, and after the Nakba in 1947-1948, the June War of 1967, and the Intifadas of the late 1980s and early 2000s. The main migration routes remained through family reunification and marriage, but the numbers were much smaller than in the period between 1900 and 1930. In 2008, 117 Palestinian refugees from Iraq were resettled in Chile by the Michelle Bachelet government. During this much publicized event, the settled Palestinian community were instrumental in welcoming them.

Over the last century, the majority of Palestinians have settled in the capital Santiago , but significant communities reside all around the country. An old Chilean saying describes how “in every town there are three things: a priest, a policeman, and a Palestinian.”

Adaptation and “Success”

Palestinian emigrants’ search for a better life in Chile was initially very difficult; they encountered racism and prejudice and were labelled Turcos owing to their Ottoman passports. Immigration policies around the region explicitly favoured white Europeans, and local press depicted Arab Chileans as parasites, and Arab business leaders were caricatured as exploiting Chilean workers and consumers.

By the early twentieth century, that image had changed, and Palestinian migrants established themselves as successful traders and entrepreneurs. Indeed, today it is well known that Palestinian surnames are among the wealthiest in the country. For example, the Yarur, Sumar, Said, and Hirmas families are symbols of the textile industry and fortunes; they filled a void in an underdeveloped sector in Chile. They also contributed massively to the rapid industrialization of the country and ventured in almost all areas of the national economy. These endeavours supported the integration of the Palestinian community within Chilean society and promoted their social and cultural mobility.

While it is important to note the diversity and multiplicity of the Palestinian experience according to class, identity or heritage, important cultural and political connections remain strong.

A Chilean-Palestinian Identity

Many Palestinian social and cultural institutions have been established in Chile. The Club Palestino in Santiago, founded in 1939, represents the social hub of the community as only those with Palestinian heritage can become members. It hosts a range of recreational and cultural activities related to Palestinian life in Chile and often serves as a central meeting point for community members. In 1916, Palestinian immigrants to Chile had also founded their own football team – Club Deportivo Palestino – which has retained a loyal following and stayed among the top teams in the Chilean First Division to this day. In the Patronato neighbourhood where many of the first arrivals to Chile first settled in Santiago, Arab sweet shops and restaurants illustrate the consistent Palestinian presence in the social fabric.

Another example of the important place of Arab and Palestinian identity in Chile can be seen in the educational sector. The Arab colleges in Viña del Mar (founded in 1972), Santiago (1977), and Concepción (1983) offer a curriculum with an intercultural and bilingual vision. The Centre for Arab Studies at the University of Chile , which hosts various academics of Arab and Palestinian origin, has also disseminated critical academic work related to the Arab world and provides Arabic language classes and courses on Palestine studies.

In recent years, younger generations of Chilean-Palestinians have strived to reconnect with a deep feeling of belonging to Palestine. This can be seen in the increasing interest in Palestinian traditions and cultures, especially language, music, and food, but also through social media, engagement in Chilean-Palestinian youth organizations, meetings with other Palestinian youth from Latin America, and organized trips to Palestine.

Consistent and Expanding Political Influence and Mobilization

Rootedness in both Chilean and Palestinian cultures has proved instrumental in the creation of a distinctive Palestinian space with considerable influence in Chilean politics. Mayors, deputies, and senators of Palestinian origin consistently bring the Palestinian cause to the front of the political agenda. These politicians also come from across the political spectrum, including figures such as Fuad Chahín (ex-president of the centrist Christian Democratic Party ), Francisco Chahuán (president of the right-wing Renovación Nacional ) and Daniel Jadue (recent presidential candidate for the Communist Party ). The Chilean-Palestinian interparliamentary group is one of the largest in the Chilean Congress .

Chilean-Palestinian elites have historically played a central role in shaping Chilean foreign policy toward Palestine. Their political capital has allowed diaspora elites to be influential at all levels of the Chilean state, utilizing it as a vehicle to mobilize about the situation in Palestine. For example, the Chilean delegation abstained in the 1947 United Nations vote on the partition of Palestine after pressure by the Palestinian community. A PLO office opened in Chile in 1978, becoming an official embassy in 1991. In 2011, the Chilean government officially recognized the Palestinian State, acknowledging the historical contributions of the Chilean-Palestinian community in its declaration.

Palestinian organizations in Chile have also been involved in mobilizing the community and wider Chilean society politically, socially, and culturally. A key transformative event was the Second Intifada , when a range of Palestinian organizations were formed or became increasingly active in Chilean society. Under the umbrella of the Comunidad Palestina de Chile , these include student organizations such as the General Union of Palestinian Students and the Organización Solidaria con Palestina at the Catholic University , charitable organizations such as the Fundación Belén 2000 and the Unión Árabe de Beneficencia , and the women-led association Damas Palestinas . These diverse organizations have been politically active in organizing events and campaigns, such as cultural gatherings, fundraisers, debates, and protests, aimed at raising awareness and mobilizing Chilean society around the situation in Palestine.

The Comunidad Palestina de Chile is well established in the wider Chilean civil society. For example, during the 2023 war on Gaza it brought together and coordinated a coalition with broad membership of civil society organizations and social movements demanding that the Chilean government take diplomatic action toward a ceasefire and the sanctioning of Israel.

Transnational Connections and Solidarity from Chile to Palestine

Over a period of more than a hundred years and despite the geographic distance from Palestine, the Chilean-Palestinian community has crafted, expanded, and mobilized distinctively Palestinian spaces and places across Chilean society. The strong grounding, organization, and activism of members of the community, as well as the interest of the younger generations in rediscovering their own Palestinian roots, form the foundations supporting the central place of Chilean-Palestinians in both the Palestinian diaspora and the global movement for justice in the land of their ancestors.

Selected Bibliography: 

Baeza, Cecilia. “Palestinians in Latin America.” Journal of Palestine Studies 43, no.2 (2014): 59-72.

Beaume, Victor. “Politics Resettled: The Case of the Palestinian Diaspora in Chile.” Refugee Studies Centre Working Paper Series. 2019.

Elsey, Brenda. Citizens and Sportsmen: Fútbol and Politics in Twentieth-Century Chile. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011.

Glick, Edward B. “Latin America and the Palestine Partition Resolution.” Journal of Inter-American Studies 1, no.2 (1959): 211–22.

Mattar, Ahmad Hassan. Guía social de la colonia árabe en Chile [Social Guide to the Arab Colony in Chile]. 1941

Norris, Jacob. The Lives and Deaths of Jubrail Dabdoub: Or, How the Bethlehemites Discovered Amerka. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2023

Saffie, Nicole and Agar, Lorenzo. “A Century of Palestinian Immigration to Chile: A Successful Integration.” In V. Raheb, ed., Latin Americans with Palestinian Roots. Bethlehem: Latin Patriarchate, 2012

Schwabe, Siri. Moving Memory: Remembering Palestine in Postdictatorship Chile. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2023.