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Palestinian startups are all about building community

On the heels of an entrepreneurship conference in Jordan, three female Palestinian entrepreneurs have launched startups that aim to educate and empower young Palestinians.

It's not easy for young Palestinian entrepreneurs to combine development and modern technology in their projects in the face of societal challenges. But a group of ambitious and strong Palestinian women did just that.

Lamis Qdemat, Besan Abu-Joudeh and Dalia Akila told Al-Monitor how they turned their dreams into ideas and then realized them as projects on the ground.

The three young Palestinian women participated this past November in AMWAJ (“waves” in Arabic), an international sustainability and entrepreneurship forum focused on the Middle East, organized by PepsiCo in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

Mustafa Shams Eddin, PepsiCo's regional vice president of sales and business development, said in a Nov. 29 press statement, “It is necessary to help social entrepreneurs to enable them to attract investments. Young people have the spirit of initiative amid challenges, low quality of education, lack of skills, unemployment, water scarcity and lack of equal opportunities between the sexes."

Four out of 10 Palestinian youths were unemployed during the first quarter of 2016, according to an August 2016 report from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, and the unemployment rate among college graduates during that same period was 51%.

Qdemat, 24, from Hebron, refused to be among the unemployed. After completing a master’s degree in environment and water studies, she started transforming her ideas into innovative projects. She represented Palestine as a delegate in the 5th Asia Pacific Youth Parliament for Water.

Qdemat believes it's important to couple awareness of water consumption with technology, so six months ago she created an educational computer game called “Water Heroes,” designed for children aged 6-12.

This is a fun game," she told Al-Monitor. "Students are asked questions on water issues and given points for every correctly answered question. This is an interactive educational game that familiarizes students with the issues related to water.”

Qdemat received training with cewas Middle East, a Swiss nonprofit that specializes in improving business practices in water and sanitation. "This helped me come up with my project, since I was able to benefit from the offered consultation services,” she said.

A web developer helped her design and market the game, but for Qdemat’s project to succeed, it needs funding. She believes her project can provide numerous job opportunities for young Palestinians in the field of design, programming and teaching.

Palestinian-American Abu-Joudeh, 27, has also realized her dream. She studied economics in the United States, where she was born, and has always dreamed that her studies would help her bring about a change in her homeland, Palestine. “I have always aspired to see Palestine evolve,” she said.

Abu-Joudeh returned to live in the West Bank after graduating in 2015. In April 2016, she quit her job with an international organization and organized a meeting with potential co-founders and funders in June. She created BuildPalestine, a crowdfunding platform for social impact projects.

“For a long time, I thought of how to bring together millions of people interested in supporting the Palestinian cause to act as partners and contribute from abroad to the growth of Palestine in a transparent manner,” she said.

“The platform is mainly a means of communication with advocates of the Palestinian cause and international donors," she said. "It is a platform for receiving and sharing ideas and suggestions to support the Palestinian cause. Indeed, a social media campaign was launched in November 2016 to search for donors and innovative approaches to solve the Palestinian community problem. Every community issue or project featured on BuildPalestine would receive donations that reached up to $5,000 from the donors.”

Although BuildPalestine, whose office is located in Ramallah, was only established three months ago, the platform was able to reach out to supporters from around the world. BuildPalestine has helped establish a network of universities and local community organizations and has held trainings and awareness workshops with the help of a team of eight young men and women.

Abu-Joudeh recently visited Gaza, where she observed that unemployment pushes young people to come up with creative ideas to overcome their poor living conditions.

“The deterioration of living standards is pushing people to look for ways to grow more than anywhere else I have ever seen during our campaign that included the West Bank, the diaspora, Jerusalem and the 1948 territories,” she said.

BuildPalestine was one of 10 finalist startups in the PepsiCo Social Impact launched by AMWAJ.

Akila, 24, is one of five young co-founders of another startup, Mindscape, based in Jordan, which aims to help young Palestinians exploit their full potential and realize their dreams.

“Our project focuses on students and aims to help them choose their university majors according to their abilities and not according to their school average, their parents’ desires or the preferences of a specific social class, such as medicine or engineering specializations,” Akila told Al-Monitor.

Akila said that talented young people lack faith in their potential and refrain from following their dreams of taking on a specific profession or craft, such as painting, carpentry, cooking or soccer, since such professions are often perceived as inferior by society.

Mindscape seeks to resolve this crisis by raising student and youth awareness of the importance of these professions. The startup plans on offering motivational and training programs for each profession, allowing students to discover their capacities and potential.

“We did not officially participate in AMWAJ forum, but we attended it to benefit from others’ experiences," said Akila. "We examined some successful models that helped us develop our project. We have not yet implemented our project, but we plan on incorporating a startup company called Mindscape to start executing our ideas.”

Qdemat, Abu-Joudeh and Akila faced major challenges in realizing their goals, but they did not let go of their dreams. This may rekindle hope that the Palestinian youth may indeed find creative solutions to various community problems.

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