Five women gathered around the table while Um Oday studied the dark gray piece of crocheted work. Stretching the piece from side to side, she examined it, trying to find where the mistake was made. Each woman offered her opinion, but Um Oday concluded that the owner of the work should continue and the piece would “settle down.”
The class was finished. Some ladies packed their belongings and left, while others continued forming the colorful loops of yarn into garments while they waited for the next class, ‘beginning sewing’, to start.
The ladies were gathered at The Women’s Organization in Tulkarem, Palestine. Founded in 2000, the organization, which is sponsored by the Ministry of Religion’s Department of Women’s Affairs, is run from a building, almost hidden, off a main street of the city.
With the goal of meeting the needs of women, and while maintaining a touch of Islam, enrichment and empowerment courses which fulfill religious, financial, and social needs are offered. The organization also caters to children, and has established a daycare and a kindergarten. Women are able to participate in religion, First Aid, child rearing, exercise, and basketry, beading, and “string crafts” such as embroidery, crochet, and sewing. To further aid the women, in addition to offering classes in their center, they also take the classes to the surrounding villages. All of the classes are free of charge, and the class participants receive certificates of completion.
A large room, sparsely furnished with tables and plastic chairs arranged in a circle, serves as the classroom. The white and turquoise walls are bare except for a small whiteboard. The windows, covered with burlap sacks, block the spring sunlight. And sitting in a group are the ladies, all in traditional Muslim garb, sharing conversation, laughter and crochet tips.
Rena, 40, is a soft spoken lady. She proudly holds up a pink skirt. “I made this for my one year old niece,” she said. “I also made her a jacket, socks, and a vest.”
She lives in the Tulkarem refugee camp with her husband, 47, and eight children ranging from ages 4 to 20. Laughing, she counts them by name, each one on a finger in case she forgets!
The family rents a two bedroom apartment in an old building for approximately $2,125 a year. With a handicapped son, they have to live on the ground floor.
Rena’s husband has worked as a taxi driver and an iron welder, and he recently opened a small store carrying food supplies. Although he remains in debt, she said their situation, with help from their families, is slightly better than in the past.
One of eight children, Rena is the daughter of refugees from the Palestinian village of Wadi al-Hawarith. The village, home to 1330, was depopulated in 1948, and with the exception of four houses, was completely destroyed and repopulated with Jews.
To fully appreciate the story of Rena and her family, and hundreds of thousands of other families just like hers, I must take you back 64 years to the beginning of the Palestinian Israeli conflict.
It began in the late 1800’s with the Zionist movement’s intention of creating a Jewish state in the ancient land of Palestine. Immigration from Europe was encouraged, and by the 1930s, land ownership by Jews in the Arab country increased.
Violence between the Jews and Palestinians grew as the Jews fought their way through the land, taking control, destroying homes and villages, and terrorizing and expelling Palestinians from their ancestral land.
Between 750,000 and 900,000 Palestinians became refugees.
On May 14, 1948, - not quite 64 years ago – the country that was called Palestine for centuries was renamed Israel. Palestinians call Israel’s Day of Independence, the day of al-Nakba, or the Catastrophe.
According to Badil Resource Center, at the beginning of 2007, there were approximately seven million Palestinian refugees and 450,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), - people who stayed in what became known as Israel but were expelled from or fled their original villages, and moved to other villages. They represent 70% of the entire Palestinian population of 9.8 million worldwide.
A large number of refugees escaped to the ancient city of Tulkarem and the surrounding villages.
Two camps, Tulkarem camp and Nur Shams, were set up on the outskirts of the city by the United Nations Relief and World Agency (UNRWA), an organization which was formed specifically to provide assistance to the Palestinian refugees. Following the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland, 58 camps – 19 in Palestine, 8 in Gaza, and the remaining in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan - were established to absorb the influx of refugees who were expelled from 531 destroyed villages. To date, UNRWA has touched 4 generations of Palestinians.
The Tulkarem camp, where Rena’s family lives, was established in 1950, and is the second largest camp in Palestine.
A walk through the Tulkarem camp’s narrow alleys, (some so narrow people have to walk single file), is like taking a walk through a nightmare. Tall, poorly constructed buildings (homes) almost touch each other. None of the buildings are painted, and the gloomy gray cement overwhelms the alleys. The only hint of color comes from the freshly washed clothes that hang over the alleys to dry, and the political graffiti statements, and posters of martyrs – those killed by Israeli soldiers during the conflict.
The voices of children ring out between the walls. With no park or playground equipment, they sit on the stairs leading to their homes, or play in the empty alleys. Every day of their young lives they are exposed to the stench of poverty, while their parents watch their children’s innocence fade away in hopelessness and despair.
Over one-third of the 18,000 residents are unemployed. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), of the 11 Palestinian governorates, the Tulkarem governorate had the highest unemployment rate in the first quarter of 2010.
“Life in the camp is very difficult,” says Rena. “Houses are close together,” she complains. But surprisingly, living in such close proximity to neighbors does not put a strain on the residents. “The neighbors are good together. We trust each other and pull together during weddings and deaths, and in times of need.”
“Some families are so poor,” says Rena, “that they do not even have bread.” According to the UN Economic and Social Council, in 2010, 36% of female headed households, and 33% of male headed households were food insecure. Every three months UNRWA provides food staples such as flour, oil, sugar and milk to the most needy. Rena’s family is one of them. “My family eats a lot of bread so I make my own, and it comes out much cheaper than buying from the bakery,” she explained.
Rena’s dream is to climb out of poverty, to buy a piece of land and build a house. But statistics show that, Rena’s dream might be hard to reach.
A March 8, 2012 article in Ma’an News Agency states, Palestinian “Men's participation in the labor force is four times that of women while women's daily wages are 16 percent lower than men's.” The article continues, “Unemployment rates among women have risen by over 15 percent over the last decade, reaching 28.4 percent in 2011.
Additionally, UN Women notes that women's participation in the labor force in Palestine is among the lowest in the world, particularly in rural areas.
According to the UN Economic and Social Council, between September 2010 and September 2011, the total poverty in Palestine stood at 18%, with 9% of those in deep poverty.
Contributing to the high rates of poverty are over 500 checkpoints between Israel and Palestine, the illegal Apartheid Wall which goes deep inside Palestine, illegal Israeli settlements which have become home to over 500,000 settlers, home demolitions, and apartheid roads, all of which hinder the Palestinians’ passage around their land, and places obstacles between them and workplaces and educational institutions. Frequent raids of the villages by Israeli soldiers often lead to the arrest and detention (arrest without a reason or trial) or the deaths of husbands, the main bread winners.
Absorbed by high unemployment rates and poverty, women have been forced to work to supplement their husbands’ incomes or become the breadwinners.
Setting her dream as her goal, Rena started taking the craft classes. “I took crochet, and I am now learning to sew,” she smiles. For Rena, the classes serve two purposes: “They give me something to do, and also it is a way that I can eventually help my husband,” she explains. So far she has crocheted clothing for children, she said.
Rena says that the courses have helped her a great deal. “My personality is much stronger, and I feel that I can depend on myself if I have to,” she said. “I have learned to discipline myself, and to balance my time better.”
Rena’s attention turns to Um Oday, the instructor, as she explains a sewing technique while drawing a pattern on the whiteboard. The women copy it into their notebooks. Um Oday shows the students the baby doll cloth carriers they will make.
Um Oday has a comfortable face, and with a smile she talked about how her own family moved to Tulkarem. They left their village, Qalansuwah, in 1948 and moved to Tulkarem. However, they left on their own free will and are not refugees. The village, which is just a few kilometers from Tulkarem, still exists in Israel.
Currently 1.3 million Palestinians now live as citizens of Israel.
Um Oday started at the organization as a student, then a volunteer teacher, and then a member of staff. She learned various crafts before becoming a teacher almost four years ago. “Now I search the internet for different crafts, I try them, and look for possible problems while making them, and then I present them to the class,” she said.
“The women who come here to learn have different goals,” she explained. “Some are trying to fill their free time, and others take the lessons so that they can make products and earn some money. There are many women who have to work to support their kids.”
Farah’s (name changed) story is quite similar to Rena. Now 32, she has been married for 12 years, and has an eleven year old girl and a nine year old boy.
Born to a refugee family, her background is similar to that of Rena’s. Dressed in jeans and a sweater, she quietly talked about her life in Nur Shams refugee camp.
Her father is originally from Salama, a village that was depopulated of 6,730 residents in 1948. What remains is the tomb of the man the village was named after, two schools, and ten houses from over 800 houses.
Her mother is from al-Lydda, renamed Lod after 1948. Once populated by 19,000 Arabs, following the biggest massacre in Palestine, the terrorized inhabitants fled and only 1,052 were allowed to remain. Its 2,475 houses were looted or destroyed.
Lod, as it is now known, has now become known as a “mixed city” with a Jewish population of 75% and Arab population of 25%.
Prior to 1950, the refugees lived in tents north of Tulkarem. A snow storm destroyed the tents forcing them to move to the Tulkarem area. Nur Shams was established in 1952 also just outside of the city. One in five of the approximately 9,000 inhabitants is unemployed.
Farah’s husband has a pass which enables him to work in Israel. He found work in agriculture, which is seasonal so he works only six months out of the year. He earns $400 a month, not enough to support a family of four, or pay their debts. By the end of the month, they have nothing left.
The extended family lives in a building which belongs to her father-in-law. In it are seven apartments for the seven brothers. Three are employed, three are unemployed, and Farah’s husband works half the year.
“Our house is not in good shape,” she complains. “We have two bedrooms, a kitchen, family room, and a bathroom. But the walls are falling apart, and they are not painted, our bed is broken, and we do not have chairs. Many things are missing in my house.”
Crochet is the first class that she has taken at the organization, and she is now taking sewing. “Knowing how to crochet helps me because if I visit a friend, instead of buying her a gift, I can make her something. I save money that way,” Farah said, taking every aspect of gift-giving into consideration.
Farah shows off a yellow, spotted crochet vest that she has made. She spent four days working on it. She has sold three other items in stores.
Farah would like to leave Nur Shams. Surrounded by pessimism, she often felt it was an impossible dream. Comments like: “Dreams? What are they for? It’s better to let them sleep!” echoed from the alleys of the camp.
But things are different now. Her crafts have given her a reason to dream of living a good life, with Israel no longer occupying Palestine. Giving her children university educations is a priority.
She believes that her dream can be partly accomplished by learning from Um Oday.
“A lot of women who come here have talent but there is no one to give them the push,” said Um Oday. “We teach them new skills, and that gives them the confidence to open their own shops, sell their work to shops, and some ladies take orders for items.” She continued, “They feel good about themselves when they realize that, although they are in the house, they can make money.” She said, “Here the women make new friends, and they help each other. They have become more patient because this kind of work needs patience, and they became more organized in their lives.”
Rena and Farah feel more optimistic about their futures. In the short time that they have been taking the courses, acceptance of poverty has been replaced by dreams. The threads they work with represent lines, or paths, connecting them to better futures, lives without poverty. And so their fingers patiently but eagerly continue working, stitch by stitch, as they follow the path of their dreams.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2012 Assignments: Feature Stories