The bulk of work which I have done in Palestine is centred around vulnerable women and, in this instance, female headed households. One thing which I have always maintained draws me back to Palestine is the energy of the women there, some of whom I’m lucky enough to call friends.
During my last visit, it was obvious that the women here were a force to be reckoned with. Safe to say the occupation is slowly degrading the mental health of a nation, particularly men. It had become clear to me that there was a vicious cycle in play with the oppressed becoming their own version of oppressors. For some, their feelings of emasculation, worthlessness and little future prospects has given rise to another subset of victims within Palestine – women. You could be forgiven however if you were fooled into thinking otherwise. It’s said that a Palestinian woman is equal to the strength of five men – many forced to takeover households due to abandonment, divorce or unfortunate circumstances of ill health.
When expressing to a friend the type of work I hoped to do, I was fortunate to make contact with Juju and Saeeda. Juju (real name Jihad) asked me, with a cheeky glint in her eye, to refer to her by her nickname however I never did work out if she was joking. Taken to eat kunafa after a day’s work together, I plied some pressure on the two women to allow me to write about them. Initially resistant, they came around, must have been my adorable pleading which also got me a photo (but only if I was in it too, bah).
I went to Juju’s for a slightly rushed visit before I left to get a better idea on how their work all started (she was upset I didn’t come for dinner – Palestinians are generous feeders). The whole family except for Juju’s husband were there; Muhammad who acted as a translator, Nour and Anas. I could sense their pride at an article being written about their mother – happily filling in any gaps for me. “It’s for a blog, social media”, I kept reiterating incase I had given the impression I wrote for The Times.
The charitable venture between these two friends, a friendship formed in childhood, started several years ago. Juju and Saeeda decided to gather donations in the form of food during Ramadan for families who struggled to break their fasts with anything substantial. Juju’s children told me she would also ensure every child in her family gave a portion of their money on Eid to the less fortunate children in their community. It carried on further into their adulthood with Anas telling me they would put aside an amount every month from their wage. This may not seem like much of a gesture to us back home but I should mention that there is no minimum wage in the West Bank. As a result, people could be working all hours God sends, for as little as ten dollars a day.
Saeeda through her work as a school teacher, in a village close to Ramallah, was coming across too many stories of poverty particularly in female run households. The two women decided that they needed to do more than provide donations over Ramadan. They started compiling a list of women they knew in desperate and difficult situations. Juju would ask her well off family members to donate regularly to their cause and Saeeda would ask colleagues if they would give to the project. As word spread, they would be told of more and more women in need. I asked how they verified the cases were genuine. There was no sophisticated system; they would pay an unannounced visit to the home, speak to the woman and ask about the family in the neighbourhood. The communities are small and particularly in villages, people usually know about each other’s circumstances.
I should add that this particular trip of mine had taken place over the Palestinian winter. “Remember it’s cold here”, I was warned by friends. I was smug, coming from a country that barely remembers what the sun looks like, I figured I would be fine. What princess ofcourse had not realised was how well equipped all our homes are with central heating. I struggled……..badly. Layers to bed including the winter coat I had brought with me, not being able to face taking a shower because it was so damn cold; the chill literally felt like it was hitting my bones. My flat mate showed me her trick as she saw me struggle one evening, a hairdryer blasting hot air under her covers. I would try anything even if it set me alight. I’m setting the scene here as somebody who has plentiful winter clothes and whose winters are usually harsher.
We visited twelve different women one evening. Their homes were ofcourse basic, I was living in relative luxury in my flat mate’s home – we had hairdryers to keep us warm. Cramped living conditions and surviving if lucky on one good meal a day. Most of them opened the door to us wearing oversized hats, gloves and jumpers – the spoils of handouts and the cheapest alternative to heaters. They looked tired, the stress etched on their faces. Is it important to go into their stories? Probably not. Which one would you want anyway? The one whose husband was murdered for being an activist, the Palestinian battle story that we secretly love and of which there are many. Then there’s the less comfortable one, the one whose husband abandoned her and her four children leaving her destitute and foraging from others – of which there are many too.
What struck me most were the circumstances of widowed women. In a country where women are still married young – most, if widowed, are left with no skills but plenty of children. All but one we visited still lived with their in laws; extreme poverty keeps them from moving out or indeed even back to their own families who can’t afford to help them. There was an underlying sense of fear in these women. Many, too scared to take money infront of their in-laws, whispered to Saeeda that it would be stolen. She promised to meet them elsewhere on a different day or come again when they could be alone.
More worryingly, one tells us their children, mainly sons, are being stolen from them by members of the husband’s family for days or weeks at a time. More often than not, I was told, it was to make a point “our son’s child so he’s our child” and keep the mother in check should she be trying to cause waves in the household that was so generously providing a shelter over her head. We left her home quiet, her anxieties clearly playing on the mind of Juju and Saeeda. I felt unsettled by a feeling there could be more sinister reasons behind these abductions although it was never suggested nor confirmed.
It was interesting to learn how this venture was growing emotionally for Saeeda and Juju. Saeeda had become an influence for these women wanting to empower them. To those oppressed by families, she would give them words of encouragement but more importantly help them establish some skills and gain financial independence – trying to help them find jobs through her contacts. It was clear Saeeda was a strong woman who had overcome her own adversity. Orphaned at a young age and growing up herself in poverty, she accomplished much through her own hard work. It’s not hard to see why she’s passionate about being able to stand on your own two feet.
Juju’s soft and giving nature means she becomes friends with these women. One of the ladies they help had become unwell and her family couldn’t tend to her. Juju made herself available. Her children would frequently hear “I’m off to Umm Mohammed’s house” and laughingly told me they had no idea out the forty she now knew, which Umm Mohammed it exactly was. For Juju however the meaning of the work has changed over the years. When she tragically lost her son, Anwar, two years ago – the work gave her a focus, away from her own isolating pain. In her heart, she tells me, she continues it in his name.
They have no stable way of obtaining donations, sporadically here or there whenever people are able to give. Their causes can come about just as sporadically. Her doctor, knowing about the type of work she does, told her about a woman in the waiting room in a dire situation. A newspaper article randomly bought by Juju’s father because he thought a photo looked like her, led to them reading about an appeal and helping a woman in Jenin.
Unfortunately, they have also had the occasional situation where they were almost duped. “It made us wiser”, Juju tells me. The story of a young student who came to them asking for help towards her student fees. At the final moment when they were to transfer the fees into her account, they were informed by members of the community she wasn’t a student nor as it transpired in need. They have now taken a firm decision to pay fees directly to the universities or colleges for students who come from poor families.
We’re reaching the end of our tea now and the end of my stint in Palestine. My time with them has given my friend (a seasoned NGO worker) and I motivation to setup a more formal charity, one which can step away from emergency funds and focus more on financial independence. It’s a work in progress and will take some time. I thank Juju and the family for allowing me to tell a part of their story, promising to come for dinner next time. As I leave, she tells me she’s confused “Why would people in Scotland be interested in Palestine?”, she asked. “Because we care”, I replied.
*Please click HERE (and share!) the justgiving page which we will continue to operate until such a time when our registered charity is in place. This will continue to provide female run households, living in poverty, with emergency funds for their day to day basic needs and is zakat eligible*