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Sitting young woman writes with a pen on a rock while sitting at a table filled with illustrated rocks

Walaa al-Ifranji uses the photo sharing platform Instagram to promote her work. (Emad Shaat)

Sabreen al-Sununu, 38, Walaa al-Ifranji, 26, and Asmaa Nassar, aged 21, are exceptions to a depressing Gaza rule. In spite of the world’s highest unemployment rate, including a youth unemployment rate at over 60 percent, these three have all, with some success, turned to online platforms to earn money.

Sabreen, a mother of four, started what is in effect her own online restaurant, the name of which loosely translates to A Unique Flavor, in order to help supplement the income of her husband Mustafa, 49, a public servant, and help pay university fees for their sons.

The family lost their home in the 2014 Israeli military assault on Gaza, when the al-Nada Towers in which their northern Beit Hanoun apartment was located was bombed.

“I don’t have a university certificate,” Sabreen told The Electronic Intifada, explaining how she got started. “Cooking is what I can do to help my family.”

Among her relatives, Sabreen always had a reputation, not only for the tastiest food, but the most attractive presentation. So when she started out, family and neighbors were her first customers.

With their encouragement, said Sabreen, and the online savviness of her sons Mahmoud, 20, and Ahmad, 18, who shared pictures of her food among their friends, who in turn shared with theirs, the number of Sabreen’s Instagram followers rose to 3,500 in the first four months.

Looking to expand

Her boys also helped her set up a Facebook page, which now has more than 10,000 likes. The only thing holding her back now is the lack of space and capacity. She receives an average of eight orders a day, she said, so her food — prices range from $3 to $12 — is selling, but she cooks everything in the kitchen of the apartment the family now rents.

“I spend from six to 11 hours cooking, based on the number of orders. Sometimes, I make announcements for a specific type of food and I receive almost 40 orders on such days.”

She said she hopes to expand her operations — ideally to open a kitchen outside the family home with the financial support of an institution that helps startups — and then ask relatives to work with her, like she does now on busy days.

Walaa al-Ifranji also turned to Instagram to help her start her business. Walaa graduated in English and taught around Gaza for two years. But the work wasn’t regular and she decided to branch out.

“It’s very challenging and difficult to find a job in Gaza, I got frustrated with working on temporary contracts, and I needed a stable source of income.”

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, unemployment for women in Gaza is just under 63 percent. So Walaa turned to social media.

The young artist has written and drawn on wood since she was eight. And by coincidence, just a few months before starting to market her work online, she also started doing so on stone.

“I go to the sea with my friends almost every day. I love to collect seashells and stones on the beach,” she told The Electronic Intifada. “Once, I drew on three stones and posted a photo on Instagram.”

Online encouragement

The response stunned her. People encouraged her to do more and soon the number of her Instagram followers topped 11,000. She began receiving orders for specific work, and Walaa posts a picture of every finished piece.

And one thing led to another.

“On Land Day [when Palestinians commemorate the deadly repression of protests inside Israel in 1976] I got my first opportunity to participate in an exhibition organized by the Gaza Municipality and the results were fantastic,” she said.

Like everyone else in Gaza, Walaa’s work is completely circumscribed by the restrictions that have followed the Israeli-imposed siege on the Gaza Strip, now nearly a decade old.

“Electricity cuts force me to work by my phone’s flashlight. I can work until my battery dies. I often don’t have internet access. And not all the types of pens I need are available locally. It’s also difficult to deliver products around Gaza, which I need to do since I exhibit online and don’t have a showroom.”

She sells her products for between $2 to $4 and displays some of her work at the Surprise Company, a gift and decorations outlet established by the Arab Women’s Association of Jerusalem for young women entrepreneurs.

None of it would have happened without social media, said Walaa. “It has been a great tool. It has helped me develop and expand my ideas and enabled me to reach many people. It we use it in the right way, it can be very effective.”

Picturing success

Smiling young woman holds camera while standing in front of trees

Asmaa Nassar Rola Alharazeen

Asmaa Nassar, the youngest among the three entrepreneurs, couldn’t agree more. A budding photographer still in her last year as a media studies student at the Islamic University of Gaza, Asmaa bought a camera in her first year and discovered a talent in herself.

“I started thinking how to turn this talent into an income to help my family pay my tuition fees.”

She turned to social media platforms where she began posting her pictures. That led to requests for her to do specific work, and from there she began a now two-year-old photography career that she has managed alongside her studies.

The bulk of her work — from wedding parties, engagements, graduation ceremonies and other special occassions — is published on her Facebook and Instagram pages, and the exposure they have brought have in turn allowed her to practice photography in a way she said she couldn’t have working with media institutions in Gaza.

“Over 6,500 people like my Facebook page, and over 3,300 are following me on Instagram. Social media can be a very fruitful business tool if used in the right way.”

Asmaa now aspires to establish her own studio to provide unique photography services.

Together, the three are fighting an uphill battle. Gaza, which the UN has warned could become “uninhabitable”by 2020, is teetering on the brink. It will take all the ingenuity of people like these three women to, in some small way, engender hope that life can improve.

Sarah Algherbawi is a freelance writer and translator in Gaza.

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