Palestinians in the tiny coastal enclave of Gaza, home to over 2 million people, are struggling to survive in the dire reality of worsening health and economic crises through the efforts of youth who have started to think out of the box.
Women, in particular, are showing greater and greater independence and engaging in “male domains,” despite many significant restrictions and challenges.
Aseel Alnajjar, Ghaida Qudaih and Nadeen Aburok, three female university graduates from the Khuza’a area, in the southern governorate of Khan Yunis, have impressive academic and voluntary work track records, yet they never found any paid work.
The young women refused to surrender to unemployment and took matters into their own hands: They rented a 3-dunam (0.74-acre) plot of land and planted, with the help of a young man, a pea crop.
“Our [academic] specialties have nothing to do with agriculture but we want to be productive individuals,” said 24-years-old Qudaih.
“What helped us to do it is that we live in a rural community that basically depends on agriculture and our families have good experience in that field. Moreover, we make sure to consult agronomists before taking any step and we have a fourth friend named Khalil, who helps us doing the hard work,” she added.
It was then that they then managed to expand their operation adds her friend Alnajjar.
“There is a local association that decided to help us after seeing our work in planting the pea crop, so they provided us with irrigation networks, seeds and pesticides, which enabled us to rent 5 more dunams [1.24 acres] to plant carrots,” she said.
Their small enterprise did so well that four men, also university graduates, joined the team to help work both plots, Qudaih said.
However, many challenges remain on the road to success for the female entrepreneurs.
“The land is only 500 meters from the border [with Israel, which is considered an access restricted area]. Moreover, the entire agricultural area is uninhabited, so there is a risk of attack from dangerous stray animals. Not to mention the heavy cost of irrigation and the continual power cuts, but we are planning to plant more than one crop a year to minimize our losses,” Alnajjar added.
Another brave female is Naela Abu Jubba, who chose to go a little bit further and become the Strip’s first female taxi driver, for women passengers only.
Abu Jubba, a mother of five and the head of a seven-member household, named her taxi service “Almukhtar,” the feminine of an Arabic term meaning the person in charge/the leader, referring to her strong personality.
She managed to add a second car to the service, yet her business, which started two months ago, is going through rough times due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Because of the lockdown measures, “the situation is very miserable. I only get between three and four fares a week,” she said.
“A woman should be free to make her own decisions and choose her own way of making a living. I do face challenges, such as bullying, but I keep moving forward and pay no attention to those who negatively impact me,” Abu Jubba added.
Huda Khattab, 35, a mother of three who studied several courses including social work, journalism and marketing, is the only women running a mobile phone store in the Gaza Strip.
“The economic deterioration put us at risk, so I decided to carry out a feasibility study for several businesses, and I found that a mobile phone store was the best choice because it is a lower-risk field,” she said.
“My business is flourishing, despite the limited working hours permitted under the lockdown measures, and I have five employees who are the breadwinners for their own families too,” Khattab added.
About the obstacles, she said, “The financial part is the toughest, especially given the difficult economic situation in the Strip.”
Given the conservative nature of the Gazan community, people entering the store find it “weird” to deal with a female behind the counter. Khattab explained that she has experienced this many times saying, “I don’t care what they think about me, because I know I’m doing the right thing for myself and my family. Making it on my own is way better than asking people for help.”
Khattab’s message to women is that “nothing is impossible as long as you are doing your best. You have to be a fighter in this world.”
Maher Altabbaa, a financial analyst and director of public relations for the Gaza Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says that even before COVID-19, Gaza’s situation was exceptional for many reasons.
“The Strip’s economy is completely depleted due to 14 years of Israeli blockade and three large-scale wars that had devastating effects on all economic establishments,” he says.
“There is a catastrophic decline in all economic indicators of the Strip. We are talking about nearly a quarter of a million unemployed, a high unemployment rate of 50%, according to latest statistics, and an alarming poverty rate that exceeds 53% and is expected by the World Bank to reach 64% by the end of 2020 due to the pandemic,” Altabbaa says.
To emerge from the crisis, the Israeli blockade must be ended with all its ramifications, he says.
“This requires allowing the unconditional entry of goods and commodities to the Strip without [Israeli] restrictions, in parallel with allowing marketing of the Strip’s products outside the Strip to revive the battered economy,” he says.
Altabbaa seems less than optimistic about the ongoing entrepreneurship movement.
“In recent years, there have been many attempts by Gazan youth and females in the form of micro-businesses to overcome the economic hardship and reduce unemployment, but unfortunately they have no tangible results on the economic ground because they are still very limited, they lack incentives to sustain and develop, and they face novel challenges, with the toughest being the COVID-19 pandemic,” Altabbaa says.
Article written by Sanaa Alswerky, republished with permission from The Media Line