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Women's co-op seeks to revive Hebron Old City

July 2, 2013 5:05 P.M. (Updated: July 23, 2013 7:01 P.M.)
By: Sheren Nassir
HEBRON (Ma'an) -- On the outskirts of Hebron, in the village of Idnah, is a large warehouse where women gather daily, struggling to make ends meet.

It's the headquarters for the fair trade cooperative Women in Hebron. In a city with an unemployment rate of 35 percent, Women in Hebron employs 150 women, giving hope where there was none.

The walls of the warehouse are lined with burlap material and on them hang intricately embroidered dresses, bags and scarves. Inside, women sit in a circle sewing pieces of delicate fabric. The embroideries are collected and then sold in a shop at Hebron's old suq, or traditional market.

Many of the women sewing are divorced, widowed or have husbands long detained by Israel. For some, the money they make from their embroideries is their family's only source of income.

Some 75 percent of the Palestinian population in Hebron's city center lives below the poverty line. Poor schools, education, water and healthcare are just some of the problems the people of Hebron face.

Women in Hebron was created by Nawal Slemiah not long after her wedding in 2005. Instead of buying jewelry with the money she received, as is custom, Slemiah collected 700 shekels ($194) -- all that she had -- and bought embroidery supplies.

"I thought, I can spend this money one time on something that is not useful, or I can buy this material and it will be useful for a long time," Slemiah told Ma'an.

She had no idea that her leap of faith would lead her to start a company that would eventually change her life and many of those around her.

Slemiah immediately began making traditional Palestinian embroidery pieces. She could do the work, but she had no way to sell her merchandise. The suq was no longer the safe, bustling marketplace at the heart of the city.

After the Hebron Protocol was passed in 1997, Hebron was split up into two districts, H1 and H2.

H1 is under Palestinian control, and H2 is under Israeli control. The Ibrahimi Mosque, the historic old city of Hebron and the old suq were all included in H2. In 2005, most of the shops in the old suq were closed for business.

Slemiah decided to take a chance. She went to the barren old suq and laid out her embroidery pieces on the floor, determined to sell her work.

"It was a dead city, there were no people there, and I was scared," Slemiah said. "What the occupation did in the old city (of Hebron) is worse than what it did to the whole of Palestine."

Slemiah initially faced obstacles from both sides of the conflict.

The settlers in H2 are known for their radical ideology. Hebron is the only city in the West Bank with settlers residing in its city center. 1,500 Israeli soldiers guard the 600 settlers living in H2, and clashes between the two populations are common.

Slemiah was also a stranger to the local people in Hebron. She said many of them accused her of being a collaborator, working for the Israeli settlers, but Slemiah would not be deterred.

"Many people asked me what I was doing there. I have children, I have a husband. It was hard, I cried ... I can say the first four years took 40 years from my life," Slemiah said.

At the time the suq was still a relative ghost town, but efforts were being made to bring life back to the area. Slemiah said she was approached by Palestinian Authority police who told her she couldn't sell her merchandise from the floor of the suq because it wasn't safe, but they offered her a shop free of charge.

Today, almost 2,000 shops are still closed under an order from the Israeli government.

Slemiah says the suq is still not safe. The Arab area of H2 is a place of lawlessness. It is illegal for Palestinian Authority police to arrest anyone in the suq since it resides under Israeli authority, but Israeli police won't patrol there.

"They tried to organize the PA to come there but the Israelis said no," Slemiah said.

It’s been eight years since Slemiah first opened her small shop. Since then she has been all over the world, speaking to audiences about her women’s cooperative initiative and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Last year Women in Hebron received grants from the British and Belgian consulates in order to expand their work.

Slemiah hopes to leave the cooperative to the other women to run within the next year and begin a new project. She plans to open a center for women and children in her village, and is working on receiving funding for the project.

The center would aim to give women and children the tools to better their lives. Slehmiah hopes to have language courses, as well as workshops that would teach women and children useful skills.

"I want to do something for all the women and children in my village," Slemiah said. “I want to give a chance to all the women who have no chance."
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