In Gaza, women with college degrees are taking any job they can find

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In the summer of 2013, I graduated with a degree in Business Administration from the Islamic University of Gaza. My grade point average put me in the top three of my graduating class.

I studied hard during my university years aspiring to pave my way for a successful career. I thought high grades would help me get a job, but this was not the case.

In the days and weeks after graduation I submitted my CV in vain for countless vacancies. With no job prospects, eventually, I began to feel like a ghost of unemployment was trailing me. 

After the first two months of staying at home jobless, I decided I had to do something to keep my mind active until I got a professional opportunity in my specialty. I am skilled in embroidery, so I bought some raw materials and crafted samples to use as marketing. Next I created a Facebook page for my company and started selling my handmade products.

I used to work at least eight hours a day for a modest profit. Over the course of three months I was able to make a net $150. This was not enough to support myself, but for me, it was better than sitting restless and depressed.

Six months later I started work at a media organization as a project coordinator and since then I have worked intermittently for NGOs and I am a freelance journalist.

My story is nothing compared to hundreds of graduates in Gaza who have spent years searching for jobs.

Sabreen al-Jabary, 34, lives with her six children the humble Cold River neighborhood in Khan Younis at the southern end of the Gaza Strip. 

In 2011 al-Jabary graduated from the University College of Applied Sciences in Khan Younis with a degree in medical office administration. After finishing school, she could not find a job. Hospitals in Gaza have had pinched budgets and salary freezes for years. Al-Jabary decided to go back to school and is currently studying law. With no opportunity to work in her fields of study, like me, she decided to start her own business.

Four months ago Al-Jabary turned a room of her modest house with an asbestos roof into a small store for renting wedding dresses. 

While arranging dresses on a rack al-Jabary told me, “I wasn’t lucky enough to find a job in my field of study. The living conditions are very hard and I can’t wait anymore.”

“My husband’s salary is not enough at all for the needs of our children. He works as a police officer with Gaza’s government and receives a deducted salary almost every 50 days. I need to support him and take care of our children,” al-Jabary said.

Sabreen al-Jabary, 34, arranges dresses in her shop in Khan Younis. (Photo: Sarah Algherbawi)

Many friends and relatives warned al-Jabary her project was risky as her home is located in a far from upscale or middle class areas. Her house is situated next to a cemetery. Customers would be hard to arrange. 

 “I can’t afford to rent a store in the market,” al-Jabary said, and so her home was the only option for opening a storefront. 

Her shop is a family business. Al-Jabary’s six children assist her in cleaning, washing, ironing and displaying dresses. 

“If my children were not helping me in this project I don’t think I could be able to go on,” she said. “I know it’s exhausting for them, but it’s better than starving.”

Most of the customers are from low-income families. Evening dresses run $20 to $50 per rental, while the wedding gowns rent from $50 to $150. The company specializes in sales to families facing pay lags and unemployment.

Palestinian women who are deaf work on embroidery at Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children in Gaza City, on 6 March, 2013. The society provides services for about 15,000 deaf children and adults on education, training programs and income-generating projects. (Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA Images)

Finding a job in Gaza is extremely difficult. The World Bank reported in April 2019 a “steep deterioration in Gaza.” In 2018 the Palestinian economy witnessed no real growth. At the same time, the unemployment rate in Gaza spiked to 52 percent. Within that statistic, two-thirds are youth.

In the same context, Ola Awad, the head of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, told the Quds News Network, according to an employment study, “unemployment rates among young graduates exceeded 50 percent.”

Awad noted “about 40,000 people enter the labor market annually, of whom about one-third of them are youth. In contrast, the Palestinian labor market absorbs no more than 8,000 job opportunities at a maximum.”

Statistics show an increasing portion of unemployed Palestinians have Bachelors degrees. Around 25 percent of Palestinian adults have at least a Bachelors degree, double the percentage of those with degrees from 20 years ago. While there is gender parity in those obtaining degrees, there are stark differences in employment along gender lines after graduation.

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics’ 2018 report shows among business degree recent graduates, 37 percent of men unemployed compared to 80 percent of women. In the field of law, 29 percent men are unemployed as compared to 69 percent women.

Overall, 65.8 percent of Palestinian females are unemployed. Even so, deteriorating economic conditions force women in Gaza to support their families. According to 2017 data, around one in ten Gaza families are female-headed.

Back to al-Jabary, her daughter Malak, aged 14, added, “for a while, I haven’t seen my mother getting enough sleep. She’s always busy with work and she doesn’t even eat with us a lot. I help her most of the time.” 

A female Palestinian security guard from Secure Land, a company for security and logistics services, takes part in a work day at the Bank of Palestine in Gaza City on March 19, 2018. Secure Land is the first security private security firm to operate in the Gaza Strip. (Photo: Mahmoud Ajour/APA Images)
A Palestinian woman security guard from Secure Land company for security and logistics services takes part in a work day at a bank in Gaza City on March 19, 2018. Secure land is the first security company for women in the Gaza strip. Photo by Mahmoud Ajour

Graduates in Potatoes Factory

In the summer of 2015, Samar Ashour, 25, graduated with a degree in architecture from the Islamic University of Gaza. She sought employment from both public and private organizations, but was not hired. 

“I was eager to find a job to help my father. For a year, I tried and tried and got nothing,” Ashour said. “I became very depressed and spent the majority of time sleeping.” 

Ashour wanted to support her father, who has worked as a driver for 20 years, by taking care of her five sisters and mother. 

“I knocked on all of the doors to find a job in my specialty but none of them opened,” Ashour said.

A report published by the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat indicated that 21,000 students graduate annually from 29 universities and colleges in Gaza. The breakdown includes 14,000 students with bachelor degrees and 6,000 with graduate degrees

By the end of 2018, Ashour finally received an offer, not from a developer as she always wished. Instead she received an offer from a potato factory called Rozita in Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza.

“I didn’t know what to say when I received this offer, I didn’t give an immediate answer. After two days I agreed despite my family’s refusal. My main motive was helping my father and supporting my family,” she said. 

The factory project aims at economically empowering women. All 20 of the employees are from females with degrees from different disciplines. 

“At the beginning, it was difficult for me to move from architecture to work in cleaning potatoes but within days, I got used to this work and find it a good alternative in light of the current economic situation in Gaza,” Ashour said.

Ashour ended the interview: “I don’t aspire to stay at this job and I’m searching for a good opportunity in my field of study. I’m considering this job as a temporary solution.”

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Over the years I’ve come to know several Palestinian women and girls. Here and abroad, I’ve sat at their tables, enjoyed their incredible hospitality, met their brothers, sisters, children, parents and husbands. They are remarkable, an example for us all. Essentially defenseless and under the brutal boot of Zionist occupation, they have borne a heavy, unending and increasingly violent, racist burden for over 70 years, but remain proud and undefeated, true to their people. It… Read more »