كرامة فاضل تناصر الوصول للفرص والتعليم في غزة

Editor's Note: Karama Fadel is a 33-year-old Afro-Palestinian teacher and businesswoman living in the besieged Gaza Strip. This feature profiles Karama's aspirations in the face of a brutal Israeli Occupation that continues to rob Gazans of life and opportunity. The writer of this piece is a relative of Karama's.

It’s been a year of growth and loss for Karama Fadel. The 33-year-old Afro-Palestinian woman walks a tightrope of hope and despair following the latest attack on the Gaza Strip. It wasn’t Karama’s first experience with the collective punishment that the Israeli Occupation Forces impose on all Gazans living in the besieged enclave. But this time, she truly felt the weight of growing obstacles as a Palestinian, a Black woman, and a Gazan.

Western media spewed the usual self-defense rhetoric throughout the 11-day Israeli military assault in May 2021. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, 259 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children. Political pundits continue to call the Palestine question “complicated.” Karama describes it otherwise.

“It’s all very silly,” she laughs through the pitch black Zoom call – the power is out. “Even if you wanted to defend yourself, there is something called International Humanitarian Law. There are principles for everything, even in war, even in defending yourself. If I throw a stone and you respond with a rocket, this is not fair. This is illegal.”

As the world outside of Occupied Palestine debates the merits of calling an apartheid system by its name, Karama lives through its brutality every day. She is unable to leave the Gaza Strip, trapped by a sea of politics attempting to drown her. Yet, she is determined to swim. Karama avoids politics, but try as she may, politics do not avoid her.

She was born in 1988 during the first intifada. Her aunt gave her the name Karama – Arabic for dignity. As early as she can remember, her family, the only Black Palestinian family in her neighborhood, instilled in her a sense of pride about her roots.

“To be Palestinian is already very difficult,” Karama says. But she explains how being a Black Palestinian woman in Gaza often means you will suffer a lot.

Seeking employment while Black in Gaza

Suffering comes in endless forms for Gazans at the hands of Israeli oppression. At the end of 2021, the unemployment rate rose to 50.2%, likely to be the highest in the world, and the poverty rate reached 69%. Economic development is strangled by Israel’s blockade and constant bombardments.  

The situation for racial minorities in the Strip is even more difficult. Karama brings attention to the racial bias of many non-Black Gazans in professional settings. She gives the example of her friend Maryam Farag, who interviewed for a position with a private telecommunications company.

“She made it through all the [tests] and phone interviews,” Karama says. “She had the highest scores.” But something happened when Maryam showed up to the in-person interview. “Their attitude completely changed. They did not expect a Black woman to show up.”

After the in-person interview, Maryam was denied the position. When speaking to TRT in 2020 about racism in the Arab world, she explained that the head of Public Relations told her that she was a good and ambitious girl, but he could not take the risk of hiring a Black person. When asked why, he said: “Because we care about [our image] in the media.” This shocked and angered both Maryam and Karama.

After this experience, Karama followed a hunch. “I thought about all the private companies in Gaza that I knew. I realized they didn’t have any Black employees.” She then called several friends to ask if they knew of any Black employees at their workplace. They all said no, but she wanted to gather more information.

“I went looking for Black people!” she confesses. She visited different private companies in the city and scanned their common areas when possible to see if there was anyone at all who looked like her. The results of her informal survey were disheartening. “One of the branches of [a] bank I visited had one Black employee,” she says. “He was the janitor.” And when she began asking questions about why there was no diversity, she was met with “silly excuses.”

Anti-Blackness is a problem across the world. The Gaza Strip and the greater Levant are not immune. Several high-profile incidents have generated attention in recent years. In February, Lebanese-Sudanese-Egyptian news anchor Dalia Ahmed received racist backlash online for her criticism of Lebanese officials. She shot back, and her response went viral after airing on Al Jadeed TV. In 2020, Palestinian actress Maryam Abu Khaled slammed non-Black Arabs in a viral video, originally posted on her Instagram page, for what she referred to as racist “jokes” that can “break the spirit of the person and shatter their self-esteem”.

Even if the situation seems bleak, Karama sees some hope for the future. According to her, the youth of Gaza are much more open-minded, incredibly eager to learn, active on social media, and more exposed to different types of people and lifestyles.

“We are a new generation,” Karama says. She urges the older population to be more open-minded, and warns that it would be “their loss” if they choose to remain “stuck” in their old ways.

So, where do Black people find opportunities in Gaza? According to Karama, there are two possible avenues. The first is through international organizations like the United Nations or the Red Cross. The second, riskier option, and the one Karama chose for herself, is to start a business.

Creating Opportunities, Combating Racial Bias

“It wasn’t easy to become a businesswoman [in Gaza],” she says. “But I had great examples because of my grandmother and my aunts.”

Karama credits her family for always pushing her through tough times when she felt unwanted and invisible. She comes from a long line of women whose resilience was formed under a patriarchal society, and whose strength became a necessary armor at the beginning of the Nakba. Her paternal grandmother fought to read in a time when it was unheard of for a Bedouin woman to do so, and went on to become the first Black nurse in Palestine. She instilled in her daughters the importance of education and forging their own paths, regardless of what anyone thought.

Karama’s aunt, Samira Fadel, was an educator before she retired. She founded the Abraham Center for Languages. After graduating, Karama became her assistant, and decided that she was going to start her own teaching business. In 2007, she applied to study in the United Kingdom to improve her English in order to sustain her business, but was denied because of the blockade Israel implemented on the Gaza Strip that same year. Thinking ahead, Karama began offering Arabic classes to international visitors in exchange for English lessons. While this worked well for a year or two, and her English greatly improved, the constant bombing of Gaza always chased her clients away. She had to rebuild her business every time, and resources became scarcer with every assault. Karama was determined to find a more sustainable way forward.

“I don’t have time to wait for solutions,” she tells me. “All I want to do is learn. My goal is to be an ambassador for Gaza, for women, for Afro-Palestinians, and for my community.”

Karama began drafting a proposal for the establishment of an online education platform in 2018, seeing the internet as a neutral ground away from the Occupation, untethered to the political situations that constantly came in the way of her progress. She looked for funding for this project and participated in dozens of entrepreneurship and start-up competitions.

“At that time, [Gaza] did not have a vision for online education,” Karama laughs. This was pre-pandemic, and the concept of virtual learning was uncommon, so her funding applications were denied. This didn’t deter her. She used the revenue from her business to set up a home office and began calling contacts she met in past years to see if they needed Arabic lessons. Karama used Google Drive and Skype to build her online classrooms.  Once the pandemic hit, she was familiar with the ropes of virtual education. Her decision to fully transition to online teaching should have been seamless, but Karama faced yet another obstacle: the power supply.

Power Outages, An Ongoing Crisis

“People call [power outages] a crisis, but a crisis is short-term. This is ongoing,” Karama says. We only get four hours of electricity a day and this has been our reality since 2006.”

Power outages are a major hindrance to everyday life in Gaza - the biggest obstacle, according to Karama, after the Occupation and the blockade. Even if the electrical grid is controlled by the municipality, Israeli authorities send the fuel necessary for it to run.

“They do not send enough fuel,” she says. “We distribute whatever they give us among 2 million people. It’s never enough.” As such, Gaza is plagued with rolling blackouts. I wondered how she was still able to use the internet to speak with me and work online. Her answer revealed yet another facet of Gazan ingenuity.

“Solar power!” she exclaims.

Engineers at the University of Gaza have collaborated throughout the years on multiple projects centered on the development of solar power in the region. The results came in the form of start-ups like SunBox and Sketch Engineering. These companies build solar power kits in Gaza, meant to be installed on rooftops to harvest enough light to power one household. They only need a few hours of sun to fully recharge, and, in some cases, can even generate surplus electricity. Still, the parts are prohibitively expensive. Karama used the money she saved and reinvested it into a Sketch solar kit.

“It works very well in the summer, but in the winter, I only use it for my business and classes.”

Karama continues to seek funding for her business projects and wishes to participate in the global economy, but money is far from her end goal.

 “We are not afforded any resources in Gaza,” she says. “So I must find a way to gain these resources outside, come back, and teach my people to use them to build our community.”

Hope in Education  

Karama has applied for several visas to travel abroad. Since there is no U.S. embassy in Gaza, she must find a way to get a permit into Jordan or Egypt just to interview for an American visa. So far, she has been denied by Israel the request to leave the Strip, and with new forms catered to COVID-19 restrictions that expire after 48 hours, she is not optimistic about her chances. Still, she will attempt to apply again in March for her latest project, ‘The Marhaba Platform.’

‘The Marhaba Platform’ is an online resource for non-Arabic speakers to connect with native Arabic-speaking teachers. Last year, she presented her project at SheTech, a business and technology incubator funded under the supervision of the United Nations Development Program. Her vision was received. She was given funds to hire a programmer to build the platform, which is currently in phase 1 of development. She hopes to introduce it to the market in the upcoming months, and, regardless of the outcome of her visa application, she will continue to work toward her goals.

“I want to [bring together] all the people like Maryam and myself, who are ignored because of their gender or the color of their skin or their disability and give them opportunities. I will not wait for a solution. It will never come if I just wait. I have to go out and search for it.”

The world remains silent about the de-development of Gaza and its people. The Israeli Occupation and its crimes of apartheid continue to rob Palestinians of something Karama has refused to give up over a lifetime of obstacles: dignity.

Two-thirds of Gazans are younger than Karama, and, as she puts it, brimming with great ideas. What would the world look like if the blockade were to be fully lifted, a blockade that was put in place when Karama and her peers were on the cusp of adulthood? How might Gazans benefit from the end of the Occupation? How might we?