A young Palestinian Chicago woman is looking to spread help “give wealth back to her homeland” by running a Palestine-based business. – Chicago Tribune

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a-young-palestinian-chicago-woman-is-looking-to-spread-help-“give-wealth-back-to-her-homeland”-by-running-a-palestine-based-business.-–-chicago-tribune

When Noora Jebreal was visiting the Palestinian territories in 2019, she didn’t expect to gain a business partner, or find herself entangled in a web of complicated Palestinian commerce riddled with checkpoints, road closures and shipping delays.

After visiting a small, vintage leather store with her cousin, she hit it off with the hospitable store owner, Imad. His store boasted everything from handcrafted leather shoes with colorful detailing, skirts and vests, to handbags featuring intricate, hand-woven tatreez patterns (Palestinian cross-stitch embroidery). But more than pretty pieces, the products have a political meaning.

Holding up a pink slipper with black crossover threading resembling a wire fence, Imad says in Arabic, “I made this shoe in 1999, and it’s called ‘prison,’” during a March Instagram Live interview with Jebreal. The slipper represents the open-air prison that many Palestinians and humanitarians feel Gaza has become.

“Our shoes speak volumes about the life of Palestine,” Jebreal, 26, said.

The store’s name, Rahalah, means “nomad” in Arabic, meant to “depict the daily lives of Palestinians due to the occupation,” Jebreal said, and the logo depicts a man holding a stick with a bag of belongings on his back.

Noora Jebreal sets up a banner for her pop-up shop of Palestinian goods outside Pilsen Art House on June 26, 2021, in Chicago.

Noora Jebreal sets up a banner for her pop-up shop of Palestinian goods outside Pilsen Art House on June 26, 2021, in Chicago. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

Back home in Chicago, Jebreal learned that the pandemic, and more recently violence and blockades, compromised his business. She wanted to help.

It started off with investing in a few pairs of shoes, and soon she was running her extension of the business in Chicago, ordering Imad’s products in bulk and selling them in whatever way she could, then transferring the funds back to the Palestinian territories.

Jebreal began posting pictures of her inventory, going door to door to small businesses and networking, promoting the business to teachers and classmates and planning pop-up shops.

I created the website myself, I created the social media,” she said. “I coordinate for photoshoots, the models, the looks for the photoshoots, I take care of any financial issues that need to be done here. Right now I’m currently trying to open up a store and … get funds for that … I’m a student and funds have been low. It’s kind of been hard and it’s hard for him out there too.”

As a social work graduate student, Jebreal likes to think of what she’s doing as “social entrepreneurship” — investing in Palestinian businesses and returning wealth to her homeland.

But there are difficulties. Imad and other Palestinian workers face numerous challenges to their business. According to Jebreal, most of the company’s customers are international, ranging from Europe to South Africa. Goods are made in three factories, with workers from all over the Palestinian territories.

“We used to have four factories — one in Jerusalem,” Jebreal said. “But eventually, they wouldn’t let the owner in (anymore),” due to Israel’s control of Jerusalem, so that factory had to be shut down.

Noora Jebreal's table displays imported Palestinian items at the Pilsen Art House on June 26, 2021, in Chicago.

Noora Jebreal’s table displays imported Palestinian items at the Pilsen Art House on June 26, 2021, in Chicago. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

Noora Jebreal's company Rahalah sells a bag that employs hand-woven tatreez patterns. Tatreez, or embroidery, has long been an important source of livelihood for Palestinians, signifying its rich textile history.

Noora Jebreal’s company Rahalah sells a bag that employs hand-woven tatreez patterns. Tatreez, or embroidery, has long been an important source of livelihood for Palestinians, signifying its rich textile history. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

Tatreez, or embroidery, has long been an important source of livelihood for Palestinians, signifying its rich textile history, its resistance to occupation and its traditional Arab culture. The textile industry is the second largest employer in the Palestinian territories. But that work is declining due to sieges and disputed control over land and industries.

In occupied Palestinian territories, Israeli forces often set up checkpoints that Palestinians have to cross, sometimes leading to hourslong wait times. Recent violence in the area has also led to Israel closing down certain roads, according to Jebreal, which prolongs the transportation and shipping process and creates long wait times for products, threatening the livelihoods of many Palestinians.

The Rahalah workers, according to Jebreal, couldn’t take things to the post to get mailed from Bethlehem to Tel Aviv during the height of the pandemic. As a result, the owner faces many additional costs to export and ship his items.

“What was once a 15-minute car ride is now a 45-minute car ride (for his transporters from Ramallah to Bethlehem),” she said. “And you know gas is more expensive out there too because Israel has sanctions on that for Palestinians. And then you have to pay the actual shipping from Israel to the states.”

“There’s always the fear of ‘What if they just take our stuff and don’t give it (back) to us?’” Jebreal said. “What is the fate of the business? What is the fate of the workers there? Are they gonna be safe?” And her experience isn’t rare.

Many Palestinian businesses face similar, often literal roadblocks to the production and export of their products. Anat International, a Gaza-Strip based, genderless, slow fashion brand that aims to “revive the textile industry in Gaza,” alerts customers in big, bold letters on its website: “All orders will be delayed due to current restrictions on the checkpoints.”

While normal wait times for Anat range from one to three months, typical shipping time is now around five months according to founder and CEO Salma Shawa, who runs the business with her mother.

“The hardest part is that the checkpoints between us and the West Bank are very unreliable,” Shawa said. “One day it’ll be smooth and open and the other day it might just close depending on what the situation is politically.

“They’re closing all the commercial checkpoints and all the borders that carry textiles or food, whatever it is, building materials, so there isn’t anything being exported or imported.”

Noora Jebreal has been gaining followers and growing her business through diligent advertising and networking.

Noora Jebreal has been gaining followers and growing her business through diligent advertising and networking. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

Factory owners in the Palestinian territories say it’s terrible — they can already feel the effect of punishment of Palestinian commerce, according to Shawa.

Last week, Israel lifted some restrictions on the ongoing blockade of Gaza, allowing some mail and packages to be sent through. But the state of commerce remains in flux.

“It impacts our supply chain a lot,” Shawa said. “Outside of shipping — right now the factory is unable to get any denim fabric into the factory because of the border — there’s a big pause of production because there’s no fabric in Gaza. You get a supply chain that’s not very reliable or efficient.

“On a more positive note, customers are super understanding of this nuance that you get when you’re operating in Palestine as a business.”

The business considers itself “slow fashion by necessity.” It stays away from bulk production and waste, operating almost on a “made to order” basis.

“We want to show Palestinian craftsmanship — that we can make high-quality items that compete with international items. The reason that you’re not seeing them is because we have very limited resources, and limitations to production,” Shawa said.

Jebreal has been gaining followers and growing her business through diligent advertising and networking. She says the national discourse around the situation in the Palestinian territories in recent months has helped her gain visibility. Her social media following — such as on Instagram — has grown after some pop-up events, and she has been able to sell a lot more items than before.

Business and profit will have to pick up even more for Jebreal to fulfill her hopes of opening an official shop in Chicago. For now, her priority remains to help Imad and help boost her homeland’s economy. “Our motto is to make sure you look fabulous, and to teach people about everything Palestine, from the beauty to the struggle.”

And Jebreal knows that entrepreneurship and financial freedom open the door to other forms of freedom.

“Eventually (I want to help) … gain back control of our land,” she said.