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US: Thousands celebrate as New Jersey city renames busy street 'Palestine Way'

More than 5,000 people, many waving Palestinian flags, attend ceremony to rename a busy section of Main Street in honour of contributions by Palestinian-Americans
Paterson City Mayor Andre Sayegh, City Council President Maritza Davila and Councilman Alaa Abdelaziz pose next to the new 'Palestine Way' street sign (MEE/Reem Farhat)
Paterson City Mayor Andre Sayegh, City Council President Maritza Davila and Councilman Alaa Abdelaziz pose next to the new Palestine Way street sign (MEE/Reem Farhat)
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Paterson, New Jersey

Thousands of people waving Palestinian flags gathered in the US city of Paterson on Sunday to celebrate the renaming of a section of a busy street to Palestine Way.

Paterson City Council voted unanimously in April to rename a five-block area of Main Street Palestine Way in honour of the city's large Palestinian community and its contributions to business and civic life. 

A bustling street festival, which saw dabke performances, live singers and vendors selling traditional Palestinian thobes, was held on Sunday to celebrate the occasion.

"Palestinians are making countless contributions to our communities every day in the United States of America," said city mayor Andre Sayegh, who is of Lebanese and Syrian heritage.

"History is happening here, when we finally unveil not Palestine Street, not Palestine Boulevard, but Palestine Way, because Palestinians always find a way."

The estimated crowd of 5,000 erupted into cheers and zaghrouta, a celebratory ululating sound made by women, as Sayegh revealed a bright green Palestine Way sign that also featured a US and Palestinian flag.

When the 'Palestine Way' sign was unveiled, many women performed the zaghrouta, a distinctive ululation Arab women perform at weddings and other special events (MEE/Reem Farhat)
When the Palestine Way sign was unveiled, many women performed the zaghrouta, a distinctive ululation Arab women perform at weddings and other special events (MEE/Reem Farhat)

"This allows us to always remember the Palestinian struggles overseas. It's a celebration, but it's also showing that Palestinians are humans, we're Americans, and we will never forget where we came from," said Councilman Alaa Abdelaziz, the city's first Palestinian-American councilman. 

Paterson is the largest city in Passaic County and the third most populous city in New Jersey. While there is no exact figure on the number of Arabs living in the area, Rania Mustafa, the executive director of the Palestinian American Community Centre, estimates there could be as many as 20,000, many of whom are of Palestinian descent. 

According to Mustafa, the decision to rename the street was aimed at combating the erasure of Palestinian identity.

"We see it as a symbolic win, we're getting people to recognise that Palestine exists, that these are the contributions that Palestinian communities have made, and recognising it in an official and permanent capacity," she said.

An invigorated community

South Paterson is often referred to as "Little Ramallah" for its Palestinian-owned businesses, many of which reference Palestinian cities in their names such as Jerusalem Jewelry, Nablus Sweets, and Ramallah Travel Agency. 

"People travel and drive long hours to get to Paterson from far away to come and experience the feeling of being home, to eat fresh Palestinian food, and shop for groceries," said Raed Odeh, 50, who owns Palestine Hair Salon, a barber shop on Main Street. 

The Baydar Dabka group of Palestinian American dabka dancers perform for attendees (MEE/Reem Farhat)
The Baydar Dabke group of Palestinian-American dabke dancers perform for attendees (MEE/Reem Farhat)

Community leader Awni Abuhadba, 72, who immigrated to South Paterson from occupied Palestine in 1971, remembers a time when there were only dozens of Palestinians living in the city and when they had little political clout. 

He said things began to change in 1984 when he and nearly 200 members of the steadily growing Palestinian-American community attended a funeral. The congregants received a complaint from a neighbour because a car was blocking her driveway and eventually many of their cars were ticketed for double parking.

To plead their case, Abuhadba approached the then-mayor who berated the mourners, prompting him to launch a campaign to get Palestinian-Americans to register to vote. 

Although Abuhadba lost the election for city councilman, his decision to run galvanised the community. 

"From that day, all the politicians in the area who want to win come to South Paterson," said Abuhadba.

In 2002, Abuhadba was appointed as Paterson's deputy mayor, a largely ceremonial position, and served for eight years. 

Palestinian women celebrate decision to rename a five-block area of 'Main Street' to 'Palestine Way' (MEE/Reem Farhat)
Palestinian women celebrate the decision to rename a five-block area of Main Street Palestine Way (MEE/Reem Farhat)

Sunday's event, which was largely celebratory, also proved to be a sombre affair, with many paying homage to slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot in the head by Israeli forces last week.

"The killing of Shireen Abu Akleh in Jenin this week really brought a lot of pain for Palestinians who have been fighting for a long time for equality, peace, justice, and the right to self determination," said Tahanie Aboushi, a civil rights attorney and former Manhattan district attorney candidate who came from New York to witness the event.

"And being here in a place where you can see our contributions, see what our meaning is in our communities, it's a much needed celebration for us."