I’ve dreamt of being an architect since I was a young girl, growing up in Kuwait and then in Iraq, the daughter of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip who had been forcibly displaced in 1967. I moved back to the Strip in 2001 and studied architecture at the Islamic University of Gaza.
My parents were concerned that architecture would be a hard field to advance in, especially for a woman. They encouraged me to study something related to information technology, instead. But my dream of becoming an architect persisted. I imagined my fingertips on Gaza’s landscapes and landmarks, envisioning what my city, Gaza City, could look like, if only it was given the chance.
The year I graduated, 2006, there had been elections in the Strip and the West Bank. A tense period of political rivalry between the Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah ensued, followed by a big Israeli military operation and ground invasion into Gaza. Those who knew me personally when I was a student can tell you how energized and positive I was, back then. I used to volunteer in several places and my days were hectic with activity.
When I realized that my degree wasn’t going to help me secure a long-term job in architecture, under the circumstances of such pervasive political and social uncertainties, I became depressed. I remember lying on my bed, looking at the ceiling, and thinking as hard as I could – what should I do?
Graduating from university is a shock as it is, with existential questions about the future turning into the tangible burden of searching for a job. Graduating into a war zone took those strains to an extreme. Imagine being unsure if it’s safe to go outside; wondering every time you leave your house if you’ll ever be able to return to it. These questions are part of everyday life for people in the Strip.
I received my first job offer in architecture in the beginning of 2007, through a youth-empowerment project that helped graduates find employment. I was offered a six-month contract to work on the construction of a new building in Al-Zahra, only a few kilometers south of Gaza City. Despite the short distance, it was nearly impossible to get there. There were several roadblocks put up by local police blocking traffic between the two areas because of ongoing clashes between forces loyal to Fatah and Hamas.
In the first four months I worked there, I only managed to visit the construction site 10 times. Then Hamas took control of the Strip and the closure was tightened by Israel. Hardly anything was allowed in or out, including construction materials. The architecture firm where I was working shut down, two months before the end of my short-lived contract. I never got to participate in the completion of that building.
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In October 2008, when I was accepted to work for the Gaza City municipality, I thought my dream of working as an architect had finally come true. Then in March 2010, the project I was working on was stopped due to funding issues. A few months later, the municipality advertised my old job, and an additional full-time position. Although I had taken a test, received the highest result, and been recommended for the job by the advisory committee – the jobs were both given to men, overlooking both myself and another leading candidate, who was also a woman, even though we had already gained months of valuable experience.
I spent almost a year filing complaints about the incident, but to no avail. At the time, I took the rejection personally. It was only later that I discovered how common my experiences were among women professionals in Gaza.
Despite the virtual standstill in the field of construction due to the closure imposed by Israel, I continued to hope that I would find work. For architects, like those working in many other professional fields that depend on materials and equipment from outside Gaza, the closure brought activity to a bare minimum. There’s no time for urban planning when people’s homes are in ruins. Civil engineering companies in the Strip were forced to dramatically reduce the scope of their operations; many were shut down in the following years, and no one was hiring. After some persistent pleading on my part, I was given permission to volunteer at one of the big architecture firms, but there was no work. In the month I was there I did nothing more than plan a single set of stairs.
I considered trying to move to another country and finding a job elsewhere. At one point, I was accepted to a job in the United Arab Emirates, but after much deliberation, I decided against it. Growing up away from Gaza, I had experienced life as an outsider. I remembered my father saying he never felt like he belonged anywhere else. When I returned to my homeland I had promised myself never to leave. I wanted to contribute to my own society and community.
That decision turned out to be very significant. In 2011, I came to hear of an organization called Aisha, which works to protect and empower marginalized women and children. Though I had never envisioned myself doing anything other than architecture, I found new meaning and motivation in Aisha’s work to amplify the voices of the disadvantaged. I started working there as a project manager and fundraiser, and grew to understand that promoting women’s rights was another way to be involved in improving my community.
At Aisha I learned that my struggle to accomplish my dream wasn’t a singular experience. As a woman, the process of looking for a job in Gaza is extremely difficult. You are faced with a considerable lack of jobs to begin with, as well as a discriminatory preference for men, who are thought of as the main providers for their families.
Unemployment rates have risen dramatically since Israel tightened the closure, currently standing at 35 percent among men and nearly 66 percent among women. Even those who are counted as employed face many adversities. Most work contracts, be it with government agencies, civil society organizations, or the private sector, are for periods of between one and five months, so there is never any long-term job security. Those who find employment are rarely afforded any social benefits, and payment is often delayed for months on end.
The appalling economic situation is causing university graduates to lose all hope, leading to increased drug addiction, violence, serious depression and even suicide. It doesn’t have to be this way. The closure must end; restrictions on our movement and the movement of goods to and from the Strip must be removed.
The people of Gaza, men and women, deserve to live in dignity, earn a living, thrive, and realize their dreams. Mine is still on hold.
Mariam Abu Alatta is a project manager and fundraiser at Aisha – Association for Woman and Child Protection, which works to achieve gender integration through economic empowerment and psychosocial support to marginalized women and children in Gaza. She contributed to a new report by Gisha, entitled "Dreams Deferred – The Impact of the Closure on Women in the Gaza Strip," published on International Women’s Day 2018.