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2 Gaza Strip Businesswomen Have More In Common Than They Realize

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The World Bank estimates that the world's highest unemployment rate is in the Palestinian territory of Gaza. The unemployment rate there is certainly among the highest in the world because three wars in eight years between Israel and Gaza's ruling Hamas movement have left the economy in ruins. Many men are out of work, although many women are filling the gap. That's what reporter Nick Schifrin discovered on a recent trip to Gaza City.

NICK SCHIFRIN, BYLINE: In downtown Gaza, the fries are frying and coleslaw is being chopped. Employees in red shirts and white hats serve greasy food to families. In the corner, there are toys for kids, and the walls are decorated with SpongeBob SquarePants. This is Big Bite, and it's a rare sight, one of Gaza's first and most successful fast food joints. The owner is just as rare, one of Gaza's first and most successful business women.

MONA GHALAYINI: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHIFRIN: Mona Ghalayini is 46 years old. She grew up in a nearby refugee camp and describes her family as lower middle-class.

Where does your ambition come from?

Ghalayini spoke to me through an interpreter.

GHALAYINI: (Through interpreter) All right. Well, it all started with my father.

SCHIFRIN: She describes her father as her inspiration and biggest cheerleader. He sent her to college in Jordan alone.

GHALAYINI: (Through interpreter) But it was quite rare. Nobody would have sent his daughter to study somewhere else, but my father did. I was brought up learning these values of being brave and not being afraid of anything and to be honest.

SCHIFRIN: She got her start as a hotel receptionist, one of the few jobs that Gazan women can get without offending cultural sensitivities. Only a fifth of Gazan women participate in the formal workforce, and unemployment among Gazan women is nearly double that of Gazan men, according to official stats. Ghalayini beat those odds and moved up rapidly. Five years after landing her first job, she bought her first hotel. Today, she owns or manages two of Gaza's best known hotels, as well as Bit Bite, a restaurant and a mall. She employs 300 people.

GHALAYINI: (Through interpreter) It's all about ambition. If you have a good ambition, you will make it at some point.

SCHIFRIN: Fifty-three-year-old Abla el Najele has that ambition. She runs a tailor shop thanks to a loan from an aid organization.

ABLA EL NAJELE: (Through interpreter) Since we started this business things are different now. Life is better and it is difficult, the work is difficult, but at least we live with dignity.

SCHIFRIN: She is trying to pass that dignity on to the next generation. Sitting next to her are two employees, her daughters.

Is she a good boss, your mom?

(LAUGHTER)

SCHIFRIN: Like many 25-year-old Gazans, daughter Raghda graduated college but couldn't find a job, and she never had the father that Ghalayini did. He died of cancer when she was a baby. So the role of inspirer and cheerleader has been assumed by her mother. Raghda says her mother taught her how to sew and offered her a job in the tailor shop.

RAGHDA EL NAJELE: (Through interpreter) It is good for you to have a job and to produce things and to feel that you are that productive. And this is success to me, yes. It is important.

SCHIFRIN: El Najele says employing her daughters is about more than keeping the income in the family. It's about infusing the next generation with independence.

A. EL NAJELE: (Through interpreter) It's good for their life, for the experience of their life. They're young, so they will learn much out of this.

SCHIFRIN: The two entrepreneurs Ghalayini and El Najele don't know each other, but when I mentioned the taylor, Ghalayini encouraged her to keep investing in her business and in her daughters. And then she smiled as she looked out over her most successful hotel, she said her father - the one who got her started - well, he was a tailor, too. Nick Schifrin, NPR News, Gaza City.

[Editor's note: This transcript accurately reflects what Mona Ghalayini said to NPR and how this report was intended to be presented. During the production of the audio report, however, the clips of her voice were not put in the proper order.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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