By Rasha Herzallah
Sometime following the death of his mother in June 2004, Ayman was tidying the clothes inside the wardrobe of his deceased mother, Samira bin Abd al-Salam, when he broke into tears, unable to believe that she was gone.
In the blink of an eye, everything changed, and Ayman bin Hadia was shocked after he found an old document in the wardrobe proving that Samira was not his mother. The document had been obtained by his father, Abdelkader bin Hadia, a Tunisian national, from the representative office of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Damascus in 1982.
The document reads: “The representative office of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the Syrian Arab Republic hereby certifies that the child Ayman Abd al-Rahman Al Dirawi was born in Beirut, Lebanon on 11 June 1982, and that his parents are among the martyrs who were killed during the Zionist invasion of Lebanon.”
Astonished by the new fact, Ayman headed to his father Abdelkader and asked him about the matter. The father broke into tears, fearing that Ayman would leave him after knowing the fact that he was not their son, and that he adopted him from the PLO office after his Palestinian parents were killed in the Sabra and Shatila massacre, which was committed by the Israeli occupation army and the Phalange militia on September 16, 1982.
Abdelkader, who once worked as a director at the Tunisian Institute of Culture and had a strong relationship with the PLO at the time, told Ayman the truth and narrated to him how the fighters of the PLO detected him following the massacre, after his mother Aisha had hidden him in a pot while he was three months old, together with his identification papers, for fear of getting killed during the massacre. The PLO fighters then took him to the organization's headquarters in the Syrian capital, Damascus, with the rest of the children whose families were massacred. Ayman remained there in the PLO office for three months, before the Tunisian spouses Abdelkader bin Hadia and Samira bin Abd Al-Salam came and asked the organization to adopt him.
Abdelkader and his wife obtained the necessary papers and documents from the PLO office, and the necessary measures were taken by the Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to facilitate the entry of Ayman into Tunisia, who was then granted the Tunisian nationality.
It was not easy for Ayman to discover the truth, but he promised his father, Abdelkader, to stay with him, as in the end he was the one who raised and took care of him. “I never felt that I was not their son at all, they did never let me feel this, they did their duty to me to the fullest,” says Ayman.
The couple had not informed Ayman about the truth because they feared that he would leave them and go to search for his Palestinian family, as the former were so attached to him. However in September 2012, Abdelkader passed away and Ayman got married, and then began the journey to search for his Palestinian family.
In 2016, Ayman obtained a visa to travel to Lebanon, and the moment he arrived, he went to Shatila refugee camp to search for his parents' grave. But the people of the camp told him that his parents were buried in a mass grave with those who were killed during the massacre, and they guided him to the road. Ayman walked with heavy steps and a shaky body until he reached the mass grave, where he fell on his knees. He spoke to them in tears, placed a wreath for them and went away.
"It is difficult to describe the feeling. I cried a lot. I was very sad, but at some point I felt proud that I was the son of two martyrs. I started to imagine how they looked, and I wished I had found a picture of them," Ayman, 38, says.
Ayman's search for his family's roots did not stop, and the search led him to find people from the Al Dirawi family living in the Gaza Strip. After communicating with them it became clear that they were his uncles. They told him that his father Abd al-Rahman immigrated from Gaza in 1969, heading to Jordan and from there to the Syrian capital, Damascus, and then to Shatila camp in Beirut, where he married Aisha and later had the baby Ayman.
"I wish to speak with my sister, I was told that her name is Huda and that she lives in Gaza and is 50 years old. She is married and has children, but the family has reservations. I must do a DNA test. This is what the family is asking for, despite them welcoming me," Ayman adds.
The blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip, the closure of the border crossings, and the difficulty of Huda's travel to Egypt to conduct a DNA test still prevent the meeting of the two brothers. “Once the test is carried out, I will obtain the Palestinian nationality, this is what the Palestinian embassy in Tunis told me, I want my three daughters to meet their aunt," says Ayman.
We reached out to Huda Al Dirawi, a mother of five sons and four daughters, who lives in in Nusseirat refugee camp, who confirmed that she had a DNA test in Gaza, but failed to obtain a result due to the fact that the available medical equipment is limited in capabilities.
The idea of having a brother seemed strange to her, but she says: "I am a realistic person. I do not want to hope much, I don’t like sensitive and sad situations because I have been deprived of my parents and have lived hard situations enough. I do not know if he [Ayman] turns out to be my brother how I will deal with him."
Despite her fear, Huda often asks her children to communicate with Ayman, and they like that, but at other times she is afraid of her children being attached to Ayman or vice versa.
We asked her, do you really wish he was your brother? She replied, "I wish to have a brother, this is a beautiful thing."
Ayman, who is currently working in a car showroom in Sousse, Tunisia, is also concerned whether he has siblings from his Palestinian parents or not, or where they are. He is always in touch with official Palestinian authorities and with anybody from the Al Dirawi family in an attempt to once reunion with his family.