Providing A Future Of Hope Beyond Gaza's Sieged Borders

By Bassma Ali with Rasha Abu-Safieh
06 January 2019
Bassma Ali
Bassma Ali
Two IT graduates are helping break down Gaza’s 11-year land and air blockade by empowering young people into work

My journey back to Gaza from the US had been hectic. Particularly once we got past Jordan. Borders, checkpoints... borders, checkpoints. It had been slow and arduous, but the important thing was that I was home. Recently graduated, I’d returned with a heart bursting with passion and a mind full of hope. To me, anything seemed possible – work, a future, even peace after the civil war and political separation of Gaza.

But it wasn’t too long until the realities of my situation hit home.

Finding work, even with my degree – I had graduated with honours in Computer Science – was proving almost impossible. I’d looked to all the IT companies I could find in Gaza, even volunteering for two months, but nothing. The companies only wanted experienced labour – but how could I get experience without work? There was also a bigger problem at play. Females were considered an expensive and often difficult hire. Cultural restrictions meant we were unable to work late, and regular electricity cuts make working from home all but impossible. Throw in the fact that employers expect us to take long periods of leave when we marry and have children, and a bleak picture is painted. Women are unaffordable and unwanted – a fact borne out by our 92 per cent unemployment rate in the sector.

But life goes on, and I had bills to pay. I needed work, fast, and it soon became clear that the only place I could find it was with an NGO. For the next four years, I worked with an humanitarian aid organisation, and it was there that inspiration struck. What if I could help create a sustainable business model that would also solve a very real problem for the most vulnerable communities in Gaza?

The outsourcing market is worth $480bn and the MENA region is going through a real digital transformation phase – Gaza has a minimum of a thousand IT graduates annually. I designed a project that could align one with the other, building a social business enterprise that would help young people in Gaza find employment in the industry.

I was clearly thinking along the right lines and Rasha Abu Safieh soon came on board to become one of our co-founders. Rasha shared our vision, and was determined to help find a way of ending the problems that graduates in Gaza faced.

Rasha Abu-Safieh

Rasha Abu-Safieh

Interestingly she also came at the idea with a different point of view. Rasha was able to understand the problem from the employer’s point of view, as well as that of the youth. She could see their frustration in finding the right talent for their company – and if we were going to solve things, it was vital to see both sides of the story. But even though we felt like we had the full picture, Rasha remembers that convincing people was tough. She was mocked for having an idea that nobody but us felt could work.

By the middle of 2013, finally, a victory. United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) – who provides health, education and social services for 75 per cent of the Gazan population of UN Refugees – invited us to work with them as an initiative team named Gaza Gateway. The idea was that we would assess their needs and use our business model to provide relevant IT outsourcing services for their different departments. There we were, validating everything we had been working towards with one of the biggest organisations in Palestine. We were happy, scared, but cautious. We knew that if we messed it up, we would be toast.

But while the project was a success, life in this part of the world is never simple. Just as we felt progress, the 50-Day Conflict broke out in Gaza, and life completely changed. There was limited – often zero – free movement, alongside constant bombing, and no safe zone identified for civilians. It was almost impossible to sleep, and blocked entry points meant that food and water supplies were severely limited. It was a heartbreaking time, with funerals taking place all around us and people in pajamas evacuated from their homes and into the street carrying their shoeless children. These were days full of fear, suffering and pain. But we did what we had always done, and GGateway persisted. One year later, in 2015, we had become a well-established company.

Since then, we’ve helped more than 600 Gazan IT graduates find work, and more than 300 outsource contracts with major clients – including UN agencies.

We continue to provide services for UN agencies including UNRWA, UN Women, and other international clients with total business contract value of $1m. This year, GGateway was awarded $3m from World Bank to scale up our business become a regional outsourcing hub. But as much as this offers a clear validation of our business model, our work is about more than helping young people find work. It’s about helping to, in ways big or small, change their lives.

For years, the people of Gaza have been trapped in a cycle of conflict-relief-recovery-conflict. There have been limited resources, limited movement and a limited reality for dreams of a better life. To get where we are today has been a constant struggle, both mentally and physically, but it has been worth it. While our families, friends and colleagues have given us constant support, our lives have been lightened by each young Gazan we help find work.

Beyond the sieged borders of our homeland, away from the political complications and despite of the lack of food, clean water, travel, electricity and other basic resources are a people ready to work. A well-educated human capital is what Gaza has. Our biggest hope is that we can help those people do what they have previously been denied: control their own destiny.

Illustrations: Aistė Stancikaitė