GAZA CITY — Last summer’s 50-day war, in which 2,000 Palestinians and 70 Israelis were killed, were some of the hardest days of Said Hassan’s life.
“I lost nearly everything that connected me to my roots,” the 30-year-old says.
His home was destroyed, along with nearly all of his family’s belongings. Gone in the rubble were the self-proclaimed computer nerd’s electronics, his wife’s beloved collection of shoes and his daughter’s favorite toys — items reflecting a life of attempted normalcy.
But one thing got him through days of despair and destruction: leading Gaza’s first and only startup accelerator, Gaza Sky Geeks.
“Gaza is a place where few people think they can build something,” says Hassan, the manager of the accelerator. “Some of the smartest people I know are now selling chocolate in the markets. People don’t reach their full potential here. We’re making sure they do.”
But reaching is difficult in a place plagued by a protracted occupation, daily power shortages and the highest unemployment rate in the world. Few can venture outside the Philadelphia-sized territory’s tightly controlled borders and 80 percent of the population depends on aid.
Despite overwhelming barriers, Gaza Sky Geeks — backed by Google and administered by Mercy Corps, an Oregon-based aid agency — has birthed a startup movement, having hosted over 100 competitions and trainings that have reached more than 1,500 youth.
In last year’s first incubation cycle, four startups — ranging from a carpooling and taxi request service to a social network for Arab soccer fans — received outside investment from Arab-focused venture funds.
The team hopes to secure funding for another four startups this year.
On a recent hot summer afternoon, twenty teams chosen from hundreds who applied participated in a startup “bootcamp,” where they were trained on marketing basics and how to sell their big ideas to investors. Those who receive investment will go through Gaza Sky Geeks’ five-month acceleration program later this year.
“We’re trying to encourage people to keep following their dreams,” says Hassan. “To never give up.”
Meet some of the relentless entrepreneurs behind those dreams that extend beyond the 134-mile territory they call home:
Walk and Charge
Gaza’s orange-sky mornings are Omar Badawi’s favorite time of day. Almost every morning, he sips tea on his balcony in Beach Camp, one of Gaza’s most crowded refugees camps, and watches the sun rise over the strip’s 25-mile Mediterranean coastline.
“You have to take advantage of the light in Gaza,” he says, showing off a photo album on his mobile phone, full of sunrises and sunsets. “And you have to get everything done then, because by night, you most likely won’t have electricity.”
According to UNICEF, Gaza is currently supplied with only 208 megawatts of electricity for 1.8 million people. The territory gets its power mostly through purchases from Israel (120 MW) and Egypt (28 MW), and less than a third from production by Gaza’s only power plant. But the supply meets only 46 percent of the estimated demand. Rolling power outages currently last up to 12 hours per day. During the summer, most Gazans have electricity for only 6 hours a day.
“I’ve been thinking about it for so long,” says Badawi. “How can we take advantage of technology and generate power in Gaza?”
When he met 22-year-old Sameer Al NuNu, a fellow engineering student at Al Quds Open University, they vowed to figure it out.
With the help of two female developers Ghaida Hussain and Saeda Nassar, they came up with “Walk and Charge,” a piezoelectric (electricity resulting from pressure) device that charges your mobile phone while you walk. So far, they’ve successfully produced an electric charge from a small device that rests in the soles of shoes. Inspired by the success of a West Bank startup which designed a top-up battery pack, they plan to launch a Kickstarter campaign to develop a more sophisticated prototype.
“Need is the mother of invention,” says NuNu. “You need to change the frustration in your mind to make something.”
Still, the optimism only goes so far. Hussain lost her home in last summer’s war. NuNu lost a close friend in an Israeli airstrike.
“It only fuels me to keep going,” he says, vowing to never give up on behalf of his beloved friend. “It only fuels me to do the impossible...to someday get to Silicon Valley and do big things.”
On their down days, the best friends linger on TED.com, watching talks for quick-hits of inspiration. Among their favorites is one by a South African entrepreneur who invented a bath-substitute lotion to combat water deficits – a reminder that they’re not the only ones facing antiquated problems.
“It’s not crazy to dream big. I mean, Steve Jobs grew up with a hard life too,” says Badawi. “If he can do it, I can do it.”
When Ahmed Al Wakil grew up watching his sisters toil in front of the mirror, trying to find the perfect blend of eyeshadow and lip gloss, he always wondered why there wasn’t an easily accessible technology that would allow them to test makeup on themselves through photography before applying.
“Even in Gaza, women want to be beautiful, it’s a universal language,” the 31-year-old accountant says. “It’s the biggest business opportunity.” So last year, he teamed up with 24-year-old Engy Rehim, a friend of his wife, to develop La Belle, an aspiring virtual one-stop makeup hub and social media network for the Middle East.
“Nothing like this exists for the Arab world,” Rehim says. “We want people to connect over beauty, to experiment using our technology and to transform themselves.”
Wakil’s own journey of transformation hasn’t been an easy one. He spent two years in Malaysia for graduate school, but returned to Gaza in 2012, unable to obtain scholarship money to continue his studies. The only college graduate in a family of automobile workers, he worked his way up from a menial factory job to retail in a men’s boutique to a relatively well-paying job at a Gazan bank. He says he is the only one in his family with a stable salary.
For Rehim, who recently got engaged but wants to work toward a master’s degree in Turkey, being a woman presents its own unique challenges in a conservative society. “If I leave Gaza for education, people might judge our family,” she says. “For instance, my leaving might make it difficult for my sisters to get engaged.”
They acknowledge the realities are unfair, but they’re determined to work ahead.
“Look, imagine getting up every day to go to work at a bank in a nice suit, but you walk to work in the dusty sand and you arrive dusty to a place where no one cares about their work and everyone is depressed,” he says. “But Gaza teaches you something important: the only thing you can change is yourself, and that’s the most important thing. Entrepreneurship will be the door out of our cage.”
He attributes much of his optimism to the best-selling self-help book “The Secret,” which holds that one can create his own reality through the power of his thoughts.
“If you can imagine it,” he says, his mobile phone ringing to the chorus of the hit song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, “you can be it.”
Mohammed Ezzdeen traces his life’s mission back to a decision his father made twenty-some years ago: purchasing an IBM computer. He says his father was one of the first in Gaza to do so and, at the time, everyone thought he was crazy to spend so much money on technology. “It was the best thing,” he recalls. “I became a computer geek and things were never the same.”
Ever since, Ezzdeen says he’s been obsessed with computers, specifically gaming. But as he grew older, he became frustrated that none of the popular games were designed by Arabs, let alone designed for an Arab market.
“I mean, the streets aren’t even Arab in style,” he says. “People here play Western games without even really understanding them.”
So the 27-year-old, along with two self-taught programmer friends and an illustrator, got together to start Baskalet, Bicycle in Arabic, a mobile gaming company.
“When we were younger, having a bicycle was our dream,” he says. “But today’s generation wants technology and mobile games. Gaming is the new bicycle.”
The group recently released its first title, an Arabic-language driving game in which a son steals his father’s keys to go on a joyride – a memory, they laugh, is shared by many of their friends.
“There’s so much potential in the Arab world for games that speak to us,” says Ezzdeen, who recently quit a relatively stable job at an outsourcing company. The Middle East, and the Gulf region specifically, is an active consumer of games. In 2011, the market was estimated to be around $1.4 billion.
“We’re ready to break into the market and make the Arab world the hub for gaming,” he says. “But really, we want to make kids smile.”
Nawal Abu Sultan was always a top student. While she studied engineering at the Islamic University of Gaza – where a quarter of the program is made up of women – she soon gravitated toward the field of education.
“I want to help people expand their minds, to learn,” the 32-year-old teacher says. But when she started teaching 7th grade technology and science, she realized she needed to do more outside the classroom to expand their horizons.
“A lot of Gazan students have so much potential, but don’t know what to do with that potential,” she says. “The keys exist but often educational opportunities are abroad and they don’t know where to look.”
Inspired by her own challenges for scholastic advancement, she and a team of four friends started MENAship, an online database and mentoring site that connects Arab students across the Middle East with scholarships abroad. She plans to partner with universities and education centers around the region.
“Navigating these applications is difficult for everyone, especially those in Gaza who aren’t familiar with the outside world or how things work,” she says. “Education in the Middle East needs a revolution…the system is old and we need to innovate.”
While Abu Sultan says she’s one of the most hopeful people she knows, last summer’s war was a test of her strength. The old dilapidated school where she teaches was overflowing with students who fled from war-torn neighborhoods of Gaza.
“Sometimes it’s hard, because I want to give them hope,” she says. “But I don’t know how.”
Still, while she concedes MENAships might be a drop in the bucket, she believes it will make a meaningful dent.
“I believe a good education is a right, not a gift,” she says, updating the company’s Facebook page. Its avatar features a photograph of Cambridge University’s wide green campus, a galaxy away from Gaza’s concrete obstacle course. “And I won’t stop until my students have that right.”
The Israeli invasion of last year was “heartbreak” for 24-year-old Mohammed AbuHaiba. While he’s lived through two other wars, this was the first time he was practicing medicine at Al Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest medical center.
“There were dead people everywhere,” he says, recalling instances where he tried to reunite family members with their lost loved ones. He wasn’t always successful. “We were trying to do as much as we could, but we were powerless.”
Even in more peaceful times, being a doctor in Gaza is a challenge. “I suture wounds for patients, but we often we don’t have the proper materials for them,” he says. “So I have to tell them to go down the street to a pharmacy to buy them and then bring the materials back…can you imagine?”
Two years ago, frustrated by deficits in the region’s healthcare system but encouraged by advances in technology, AbuHaiba started TebCare (Teb is medicine in Arabic). It’s an Arabic-language WebMD of sorts, designed to address the parallel needs of a void in medical knowledge online and off while featuring a wealth of talented but unemployed doctors. The website averages 3,000 unique visitors a day, he says.
“Arabs are lazy,” he laughs. “Getting them to the office is sometimes hard...so if we can do as much as we can remotely, we’ll be a success.”
The team currently has a volunteer staff of 43 doctors from around the region who answer questions free of charge within 24 hours. They’re planning to introduce paid consultations with video services and scale the service to the Gulf region. AbuHaiba says they’re currently in talks with the US-based Mayo Clinic to translate content and produce it for the Arab world.
He hopes the website can become a viable employment opportunity for Arabic-speaking doctors, who often make dismal salaries in the Middle East. He says there are around 1,700 doctors in Gaza, half of whom don’t receive a regular salary. Those who do average $600 a month.
Along with developing the region’s go-to source for medical care, AbuHaiba also hopes to crack Gaza’s professional glass ceiling. While he procured an American visa last February, which is no small feat, last month he finally obtained permission from Israeli and Palestinian authorities to travel to Houston, Texas, where he hopes to take the US Medical Licensing Examination.
“America is the best country in the world to be a doctor,” AbuHaiba says. “I want to bring what I learn there to Gaza...to change lives. It’s a big dream, but dreaming is all we do in Gaza.”
A version of this story appeared in The New York Times.
Lauren Bohn is the The GroundTruth Project’s Middle East correspondent. This story is part of an ongoing GroundTruth series called "The Other," supported by the Ford Foundation.