Editor’s note: American Stories is an occasional series about immigrants who have left their homelands to make our community their new home.
Some immigrants who seek a new beginning in this country come bearing heavy sorrow and unspeakable pain, often inflicted by wars of someone else’s making. A lot come with broken hearts and broken bones, but it is their unbroken spirit that sustains them in their sometimes difficult quest for a new life. In the case of Bassam al Hayek, the point is all the more poignant.
He came from Beit Sahour, a little town near Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Born into the Christian faith, al Hayek was one of the dwindling Arab Christians in Palestine, scratching out an existence in the crossfire between the fundamentalist Muslims and the Israeli troops.
“We knew we would be killed sooner or later,” he said. “It was just a matter of by whom and when. If we, as Christians, express our feelings against the fundamentalists in Palestine, then we are called traitors and infidels of the religions of Islam, just like the Americans. And they kill those they brand as traitors.”
But as a Palestinian civilian, regardless of his faith al Hayek could not escape the brutal violence between Israel and Palestine. In 1971, while returning to the University of Baghdad from a vacation, he was arrested by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint on suspicion of being a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The arrest led to torture sessions over the course of six months that he said left him with broken legs and injured internal organs, and emotional trauma from solitary confinement. After his release from prison, al Hayek said he was put in what was called a “West Bank arrest,” meaning he could not travel beyond the West Bank, ending his dream of a college education.
To protest the torture he suffered and the violence he witnessed every day, al Hayek took up painting. One Earth Day poster he created depicts wheat growing out of ground nourished by blood gushing from the head of a young Palestinian. The text reads partially, “stop the killing from both sides.” In another poster, about Mother’s Day, a Palestinian mother bleeds, besieged by daggers piercing the hearts all around her.
Al Hayek’s despair and sorrow for the innocent victims of the violence cried out in his art, and he says it made him a target of Israeli persecution. During the 30 years he spent in his homeland, he said he suffered numerous tear gas attacks, rubber bullet attacks, the destruction of his art and property, harassment, beatings and public humiliation, all of which left a heavy toll on his health. Somehow, through it all, he managed to get married and raise five children, all of whom were not registered with the government because the father had no ID. It was seized by the Israelis.
Of all the horrors he witnessed, al Hayek still shudders at the memory of checkpoints.
“Sometimes there is a checkpoint every 100 meters,” he said. “Every day, to go from my home to the children’s school, we had to go through three checkpoints. Sometimes people sleep on the line on checkpoints for days, missing everything. It takes all day, sometimes days, to go from one end of town to the other.”
He recalled that when he came to America and entered U.S. Customs in Seattle and the official said he was going to “check” him, he began to undress right there. The startled official quickly stopped him and asked what he was doing. “You said you wanted to check me,” al Hayek recalled saying. “That is what it means at checkpoint in Palestine.” The memory brings tears to his eyes to this day.
Despite the adversity, al Hayek built a successful career in his homeland as an artist, employing 25 people at one point in his workshop. It took him 25 years to build a business and 30 to build a house.
“It was not like here that when you want a house, you get a loan and buy a house,” he said. “Back home, we have to save and save and start. Then stop when money runs out and start again when you have more money saved up.”
With a household to support, it took him 30 years to complete his house. And then one day in July 2002, Israeli soldiers razed it with bombs and bulldozers.
“In five minutes,” al Hayek said. “It took me 25 years to build the business and 30 to build the house. And in five minutes, everything was gone, in front of my own eyes. All because of the paintings I was doing. They are considered sympathetic to the Palestinians’ cause.”
After the house was bulldozed, al Hayek suffered a severe heart attack. Barely able to work with lungs damaged caused by tear gas and prior injuries, he arrived in Spokane in October 2002. Students at Whitworth University, where one of his sons was studying then, raised funds for his passage. He sought political asylum and a few months later, his wife and two daughters joined him here.
Today, al Hayek carves religious figurines for local churches. He said he likes what he does because it offers him some measure of peace.
The thing he likes best about Spokane? “No checkpoints.”