Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

Disabled Gaza woman finds joy in mens work

Doaa Mohaisen | 02-01-2016

Samah Shahin standing in front of her  showplace

"Never in my life had I seen this coming. Am I happy? Indeed," Samah Shahin, a 35-year-old Gaza artist, told me as she looked around her one-room workshop filled with her small crafts and embroidery.

Samah suffers from a birth defect called congenital dislocation, which has crippled her left hand. During elementary and junior high school, Samah underwent six surgeries, which not only were in vain but, according to her, also damaged her muscles.

The surgeries Samah went through forced her to skip classes. Some of her teachers tried to persuade her to quit school altogether, but Samah had a different opinion, "I wasn't a clever girl, but I wanted to learn." She graduated from high school and entered college, but although she earned a bachelor’s degree in secretarial skills and had a good CV, she was turned down by many employers when they learned of her condition.

Fortunately, her brother introduced her to an organization called Irada, established in 2012 to train people with disabilities in a variety of vocational skills. She was chosen along with eight other girls to learn how to operate a CNC (computer numerical control) machine, a specialized piece of equipment used in the manufacturing industry to control machine tools such as lathes and grinders.

A book cover intricately carved by Samah
A book cover made wiith the CNC machine by Samah

"My female colleagues weren't as enthusiastic as I was about learning this new skill, because it is unusual for a girl to work on a CNC machine; it is considered a men's job,” she said. “At first, I didn't absorb the notion well, but I wanted to prove myself, to do something, anything."

Excelling at 'mens work'

She did so well that Samah was chosen along with five males to manage their own workshops, a reward from Irada for their hard work after finishing their training. Samah is the first Palestinian girl to operate a CNC machine. It was commitment and pure desire to master something that earned her first place among those trained by Irada to operate the CNC machine.

Being a working girl and working on equipment  commonly considered a "men’s job" wasn’t easy for Samah, but as soon as she proved herself and started earning her own living, her self-esteem grew.

"I was offered a job once eight months after turning this workshop into my own place, but I turned it down. I cherish this place so much. When I first came here, I was all alone, with nothing but my laptop, which I use to draw my designs, and a blanket to sit on. Nothing else. I wouldn't give up this place for anything."

Yet the continuing challenges are significant: power shortages, lack of and high prices for raw materials, and the cost of transportation.

"I barely earn anything at all," Samah said, who longs for her own CNC machine, which she could operate at home with her own crew of disabled assistants. "The workshop I was given, which includes a CNC machine, is in Gaza City; therefore, I have to take a couple of cabs to get there, and that’s expensive. And power fails so many times. I travelled to the workshop several times only to find out the power was off and I had to go home and come back another day. I have designs that will take an entire year to produce! I just need the necessary materials."

If she really allows herself to dream, despite the eight-year Israeli blockade, Samah wishes she could held exhibitions abroad or at least export her handmade products. Palestinians from the West Bank and Arabs from other countries have promised to buy from Samah once the blockade is over, but it has been years now.

"People with disabilities often are able to perform better than normal people when they get the opportunity,” she said. She tells other people with handicaps, “Don't ever feel disability is the end. It is not. If you wake up and an idea pops into your head, go for it. Write it on paper and hang it on a wall as inspiration.”

Each woodcut craft Samah makes whispers the joy she feels in her creation. You touch one and you feel Samah's hand.

Posted January 2, 2015


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