Gaza City – Maryam Abu Eatewi, 25, sits at a wooden desk with a group of other young women, typing on a laptop with her full attention focused on the screen in front of her.
The room is filled with colourful drawings representing the women’s successes and, in some cases, their dreams of leaving Gaza. The women are working on a variety of projects; in Abu Eatewi’s case, she recently designed and launched a mobile app called Wasselni, a carpool and taxi-ordering network.
Although there were concerns at the outset that such an application may not work in Gaza due to a lack of necessary infrastructure, Abu Eatewi says it has proved to be a success, attracting nearly 1,000 users.
“We sponsor events and ask people to use our application to get to the event place or when they leave,” she told Al Jazeera.
Gaza is a particularly tough market due to the long-standing Israeli siege and frequent conflict in the region. Abu Eatewi, who is currently unable to travel outside of Gaza, says she has been looking for partners outside of the besieged territory to help her business grow.
Abu Eatewi was the first woman to have a start-up business funded in Gaza, with the help of Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG), an offshoot of the humanitarian group Mercy Corps, which invests in local digital entrepreneurs.
GSG’s offices are colourful, filled with sketches and notes from young people about their dreams and achievements. There is a space for young entrepreneurs like Abu Eatewi to work freely, as if it were their own office.
“We have an open office that provides everything the entrepreneur needs, which made them believe in us,” Saeed Abdel Rahman, GSG’s outreach and executive manager, told Al Jazeera. So far, the organisation has worked with about 2,800 entrepreneurs, Abdel Rahman said.
We have an open office that provides everything the entrepreneur needs, which made them believe in us.
Funded by Google for three years ending in 2014, GSG recently launched a crowd-funding campaign – Gaza Starts – that has successfully raised more than $250,000 towards their $500,000 goal.
“We only had two options: to close and end our services or to continue and start this campaign,” Abdel Rahman said.
In the small, densely populated Gaza Strip, there are many entrepreneurs who started from scratch. From its humble beginnings in a single room containing two IT graduates, Unit One has since expanded into a sizable business.
In a building overlooking Gaza’s seaport, Unit One has two offices: one for male and one for female employees. All work busily at their laptops, while cofounder and executive manager Saady Luzon gives instructions.
Founded in 2005, Unit One provides software development and business process outsourcing for clients from the United States, Europe and Gulf countries.
Luzon says the company’s goal is to put Gaza on the map for exporting technology information services, and to prove to the world that Gaza is not just a place of war and divisive politics.
“Competencies in Gaza are very high but [there needs to be] job opportunities,” Luzon said, citing a significant number of unemployed IT graduates from Gaza universities.
The 2014 war cost Unit One financially, as it lost some contracts with big companies and consequently had to lay off some employees. “We kind of lost some of the clients’ trust, but we managed to regain it, and we now have more than 200 clients,” said Luzon’s 34-year-old partner, Hussam Abu Shabaan.
“People look at Gaza as a disaster zone while in fact Gaza needs trade, not aid,” Luzon added.
Meanwhile, another group of young people called Diwan Ghazza gathers at one of Gaza’s hotels overlooking the Mediterranean. The group is composed of a number of smaller clubs, focusing on a wide variety of subjects: English and Arabic books, cinema, photography, astronomy, debate and more.
The initiative started several years ago after an event called “Tweet Up Gaza”, in which 30 local Twitter personalities gathered to discuss ideas and methods of filling the “cultural vacuum” in Gaza, said Diwan Ghazza cofounder Yasmeen al-Khoudary, 25. The idea was to organise free events that could run solely on the passion and energy of those involved.
Khoudary told Al Jazeera that their biggest success has been in attracting people from very different backgrounds and beliefs. “Our [club] activities have united them,” she said.
Diwan Ghazza has hosted famous writers, activists and scientists physically or through Skype, but their inability to host many guests from outside the Gaza Strip has been their biggest challenge.
“There is a difficulty of exchanging ideas physically, on a personal level,” Khoudary said. “We’re limited to online exchanges.”