Manar el-Sheikh | 10-11-2019
To get to where she is in Gaza society today—a single, 26-year-old female engineer, who started her own solar energy business that is attracting international contracts—Majd Mashhrawi had to be unusually strong and independent. And when I first met her mother, Futtna, I knew where those qualities came from.
Although Futtna married when she was 17, she taught herself to be an independent woman. She was intent on attending university to study law—and did, with her husband’s support. In fact, she joined the staff of one of the local government's courts. Futtna followed tradition by starting a family early, but wove her coursework around those responsibilities, studying for exams after her children went to sleep.
“Success is not a thing that comes from luck,” she says. “It comes from hard work, perseverance, learning, sacrifice and, most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”
Futtna, now 47, quit law after just a couple of years to raise her children (now six!), but she has not forgotten her passion. She has gone on to study for and complete her master’s degree in comparative jurisprudence, which analyzes the world’s differing systems of law.
Teaching her children the world's language
Futtna passed her interest in the world at large on to her children. She knew it would help them be more successful in life. Helping them master the English language was part of her “campaign.” Futtna organized an English club of sorts for her little clan, in which they discussed the topics that interested them, but in that language. This type of activity was uncommon for Gazan mothers at the time, and even now; rote learning is more the norm. As a result, Majd faced little difficulty in flawlessly delivering a speech for TedWomen in 2018. And she is expert at negotiating with foreign and international companies to develop her business.
As Futtna’s oldest daughter, Majd both followed in her mother’s footsteps—and forged her own path. She has avoided marriage, setting her sights first on university and then on starting her own business. For the latter, she chose the male-dominated field of construction management, with her first product, “Green Cake." The product uses rubble and ash that would otherwise go into landfills to make a brick-like material that is lighter than concrete.
Majd ignored the considerable social resistance she encountered, only concerning herself with convincing her father, Ismail, who is manager of a Gaza NGO. He was not completely convinced by her business plan, and worried about the harsh work environment. He explains, "I worked hard in my life to give my children a comfortable and good life, and this made unconvinced at first."
But Futtna supported her daughter and together they ultimately convinced Ismail, who then became an advocate for his daughter.
When Majd first learned she had won the Muhammed Ali Humanitarian Award, she was sitting with her family in the living room of her home. She saw the joy and pride in her mother’s eyes. Majd has received many awards, but this one, Futtna says, was the most special because it honors six young adults, ages 30 and under, who serve as advocates, activists and role models in ways that are ultimately transforming.
Traveling to America together
Majd traveled to America to receive the award. For her, it was only one more of many trips out of Gaza. But for Futtna, getting permission to go on the trip was difficult. U.S. immigration officials didn’t consider her daughter’s achievement as sufficient reason to enter the country. Futtna had nearly lost hope of being with Majd on that special day, but then Donna Baranski-Walker, founder of the American NGO Rebuilding Alliance, which has purchased Majd’s solar lamps for needy Gaza households, launched a campaign to help her. More than 800 signatures were collected from a group of legislators in the U.S. Congress, and this advocacy helped her get the American visa. Donna also donated funds to pay for the air ticket, a gift that left Majd and her mother speechless. Futtna describes Donna as “more Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves” because of her big love and respect for Palestinians.
Futtna arrived in New York on September 12. Majd says she was paralyzed with happiness and her mood soared while she waited for her mother in the airport. Futnna spent nearly 15 days in America, visiting Washington, D.C.; Massachusetts; and Virginia as well. The city Futnna loved the most, and hopes to visit again, is Boston. She says, "In Boston, you find houses and buildings that are hundreds of years old next to skyscrapers. It is a beautiful sight to see."
Futtna also encountered in America something we don't find in Gaza: a diversity of cultures and religions. To immerse herself in this diversity, she sought out centers of worship for Muslims everywhere she went.
Meeting with members of Congress
Futtna felt she owed a debt of gratitude to the U.S. Congress for helping her to join her daughter, so she decided to visit Congressional offices in Washington. She found it easy to meet with members of Congress, or at least their staff members, face-to-face. In Gaza, “ordinary” citizens find it almost impossible to meet with politicians or public figures. Futtna was amazed by the simplicity of Congress members; they talked to her as if they were friends.
One of the staffers she met was Geo Saba, a former Stanford baseball player and a legislative aide to Rep. Ro Khanna. Futtna describes him as thoughtful in his comments, genuinely interested in youth issues and problems in Gaza. In her discussion with him, Futtna emphasized that most Palestinian young men and women in Gaza are talented and special like her daughter Majd, but unfortunately they haven’t had the same opportunities—including incubators that support their ideas for business projects and help in getting around the severe travel restrictions imposed on them by Israel and others.
The work of Rebuilding Alliance to broaden those opportunities to others is vitally needed, Futtna says. And her own horizons are now so much broader as well.
Posted: November 10, 2019
Mentor: Pam Bailey