Next time you’re cursing the traffic on your commute, or things that are getting in the way of you achieving something you’ve set your heart on, or a bully at work… think of Nawal Slemiah, the woman who built up a thriving handicraft business and community organisation against all the odds in Israeli occupied Hebron.
Last night, the diminutive Palestinian woman stood beside the lectern in Lady Margaret Hall College, Oxford (she would not have been visible behind it), and – without slides or notes – she spoke for 45 riveting minutes about how she built up Women in Hebron, from nothing in the divided city.
She described her first trip to Hebron from her village – a trip that would take 15 minutes if not for the roadblocks. She’d been surprised to learn that a woman she met earlier lived in the Palestinian part of the city (which had been divided by occupying Israeli forces in 1995). She didn’t know anyone lived in the ghost town anymore.
So she decided to go there and try her luck at selling her traditional embroidery – that her mother had taught her how to make. Her university education had been interrupted, and she had no other form of income. She described standing outside the mosque holding out a few pieces of her work.
A man approached her and said “Instead of standing there looking like you are begging, come with me and I’ll give you a shop to sell from”. Nawal didn’t hesitate. She followed the stranger and her trust paid off. He was trying to encourage people to come back to the Palestinian part of Hebron and repopulate the deserted shops.
Years of determination, hard work, courage and intricately, beautifully embroidered pieces later and Nawal was sitting in her shop with a group of women – some widowed, some whose husbands had been incarcerated – who could now make a living selling their handicrafts, mainly to the foreign visitors who come to bear witness to the occupation.
Nawal described how she and her friends were talking and laughing, when an Israeli soldier came in and demanded to know what she was laughing about. Nawal was furious and stood up to him. “Don’t you know that I can just arrest you? Or kill you?” he said. She refused to back down and eventually he left. Standing up to bullies often pays off. After years of similar incidents, the shop is now largely left in peace.
But Nawal and her family and neighbours still live in a country characterized by conflict. Her nine year old daughter is terrified of the guns and Nawal is glad that she hasn’t got used to them. And it is against this background that she and 150 other women produce their beautiful wares and have set up a community centre where they can meet and support each other.
The Women in Hebron website says “Our work is based on the idea that developing Palestinian handicrafts is more than just an income-generating project. It is in of itself an act of community-strengthening, of honoring the role of women in our society, and a means to show sumud – steadfastness – in the face of the occupation of Palestine and the harm it has done to the people of Hebron”.
Nawal’s story reminded us that business is so much more than profit generation; business is about exchanging ideas and goodwill as much as about exchanging goods and money. It’s about building community rather than building empires. Every business is a form of community – a community of suppliers, traders, and customers.
Nawal proudly tells us that Women in Hebron is now a World Fair Trade Organisation certified producer. She has high hopes to sell more of their products in shops in the UK and elsewhere. And I know by now that if Nawal puts her mind to something – it will happen. This woman really can do anything.
Yesterday, September the 25th, was the 3rd anniversary of the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals – the ambitious but achievable UN roadmap for a fairer, healthier, safer world.
It was also the day of the global launch of International Fair Trade Charter. Initiated by Fairtrade International and the World Fair Trade Organisation, it sets down the fundamental values of Fair Trade and defines a common vision towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A vision that, we believe, cannot be attained through business as usual.
And it was the day that, on behalf of Oxford Fair Trade Coalition and the Fairtrade Foundation, I was proud to present the Lord Mayor of Oxford with the certificate of renewal for Oxford’s status as a Fairtrade City.
It was a fitting recognition of the commitment of the many Oxford businesses, organisations and individuals who are working for and promoting fair trading between producers all over the world and the people of Oxford.
They model a different kind of business… a kinder kind of business. The kind of business which supports sustainable development.
Oxford has been one of the cradles of the fair trade movement – the first Oxfam shop, the precursor of all fair trade shops, selling crafts made by Chinese refugees, is here in Oxford.
The world’s first Fairtrade University, Oxford Brookes is here in Oxford. Now six colleges of Oxford University have recently also gained Fairtrade status.
The World Fair Trade Organisation began life as part of Oxfam here in Oxford and its CEO, Erinch Sahan is coming to Oxford to speak at our AGM on December 10th – International Human Rights Day (put it in your diaries!).
Importantly, we have several dedicated fair trade shops here in Oxford, including Fairtrade at St Michael’s – that celebrates its 15th anniversary this year – Exclusive Roots in St Giles, Indigo in Cowley Road and Headington Fairtrade… that was graced with a visit by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
And, of course, Oxford City Council has continued to play its important part in keeping the city Fairtrade – its procurement policy now requires suppliers to provide Fairtrade alternatives where possible.
As the Lord Mayor said, Oxford is “a city of influencers” – let’s use that influence to create a global trading system populated by supply chains and models of business that leave no one behind.
Oxford Fair Trade Coalition will continue to draw on our city’s deep roots in fair trade, its history of thought leadership and its global reach through its thousands of students and visitors every year – to support the fair trade movement and the Sustainable Development Goals. Please do join us in doing so.
Sabita Banerji – Chair, OFTC