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

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

From unemployed to entrepreneur: a woman breaks barriers with ice cream

Yasmin J. Abusayma | 25-10-2020

Neighborhood children line up for Fatema's ice cream

For the most part, news about Gaza focuses on bombings, blood and devastation. As a result, few people realize that we Gazans are more than victims; we have our own dreams and desires, our own inventions and social ventures. While we are haunted by the constant specter of violence and war, we never give up!

Meet Fatema Khaled Alzatma, 24, a student of entrepreneurship at Gaza University who lives in Rafah, along the border with Egypt.

Despite a lack of job opportunities, the Israeli blockade and a conservative society in which women are often not accepted in the workplace, Fatema found a way forward: She decided to open her own ice cream shop.

“I have always wanted to be different,” Fatema explains. She believes that, with enough courage and faith, hard work pays off in the end: “Just as flowers bloom, humans have the ability to grow and flourish.”

Now, as a business owner, she has proven how successful this philosophy can be. Fatema has overcome severe financial hardship and is able to support not only herself, but also her parents, who both suffered strokes and are paralyzed as a result.

Starting the business

Fatema shops for fruit

Unlike some students, Fatema could not afford to wait until she graduated to secure a source of income. So, when the dean of the entrepreneurship program at her university organized a course on the business of making ice cream, she jumped at it. She supplemented what she learned with YouTube videos—and a lot of experimentation.

Much to her surprise, friends and fellow students loved the ice cream she made—enough to pay for it. And that really motivated her.

But starting a business takes money. Fatema had some savings, but not enough to buy the necessary equipment. That’s where the Center for Women’s Legal Research & Counseling stepped up. A nonprofit organization based in Gaza City, the center’s mission is to empower women legally, socially and economically while protecting them from gender-based violence. And it gave Fatema the additional funding she needed to start her business.

Now, Fatema wakes up early every morning to buy fresh fruit for her flavors. She offers toppings such as Nutella, chopped Galaxy candy bars and crumbled Oreo cookies. But what her customers love the most is that she makes the ice cream to order for each customer.“They enjoy observing the whole process,” she explains. Her prices are affordable, ranging from 1-7 shekels (30 cents to $2) per serving.

Once her three brothers return home and can care for her parents, she opens her store—usually about 3 p.m. Despite her late start, it’s not uncommon for Fatema to work for over eight consecutive hours. “People wait for hours just to try my ice cream,” she says. “I am really overwhelmed by the huge support.”

Challenging social norms

Photo by Nedal Alwhidi

Her small ice cream shop, housed where her grandfather once sold felafel, is called “It’s Me.” The name refers to Fatema and her self-image as a strong, self-made Palestinian woman who is challenging stereotypes and social norms.

“I had some fears that people would not accept a girl working in an ice cream shop because I live in a conservative society,” she confides. “And at first, some people looked at me as something sort of strange.”

But people soon became accustomed to seeing Fatema at work in her shop when they passed by. Now, she’s an integral part of the neighborhood.

“Fatema has paved the way for other girls to leave their fears behind and go beyond the restrictions imposed by society,” says Mari’ Bashir, 35, a new customer at It’s Me and her mentor at the Center for Women’s Legal Research and Counseling.

Doha Shaa’t, 25, a translator based in Rafah and a loyal It’s Me customer, adds:

“Cultural expectations and gender stereotypes often prevent girls and women from reaching their full potential. Many young girls in Gaza are denied an education and don’t have access to income-generating opportunities.”

Doha views Fatema as a role model, and her small ice cream shop as “a source of inspiration for all girls who live in a conservative society like ours.”

The future

Fatema hopes to eventually purchase an ice cream-making machine that saves time and effort. Customers sometimes complain about the wait a while as she prepares each cone at the time of order. She also plans to offer more flavors and expand into a spacious shop, so people can come inside and sit down.

“I advise every girl to work hard on her dreams no matter what it costs,” says Fatema. "Create your own opportunity and never be afraid of the consequences. We Palestinians never give up. It is the challenge that makes us strong.”

Posted: October 24, 2020

Mentor: Ben Gass

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