Gaza City – Joumana Sroor learned how to code at the age of 12.
By 15, she and a team of three other girls in Gaza had built a prototype for a web application called Early Alert, which notifies users of traffic, crowds, accidents or crimes happening near them.
Although Sroor says she does not always find encouragement for her technological pursuits in Gaza, there is one place where she feels at home: A seed accelerator and workspace in Gaza City’s bustling al-Rimal neighbourhood called Gaza Sky Geeks.
“The people here are like my second family,” Sroor told Al Jazeera inside the loft-like space, amid the buzz of dozens of Palestinian designers, developers and freelancers who work here daily.
The organisation, founded in 2011 with a $900,000 grant from Google, provides mentorship and support to startups in Gaza to help to grow the territory’s nascent tech industry.
Since 2013, four companies that went through the Gaza Sky Geeks “incubation” process secured investments ranging from $30,000 to $65,000, the accelerator’s social media coordinator, Dalia Shurrab, told Al Jazeera.
Gaza Sky Geeks is now focusing on bringing more girls and women into the fold. Currently, about half of the founders of the startup companies that Gaza Sky Geeks mentors are women, said Rana Alqrenawi, who is in charge of the organisation’s female-centred programmes. The goal is to get to 80 percent, she said, in an effort to overcompensate for the current gender gap in the tech world.
Recently, the organisation has been supporting the participation of girls from Gaza in a global contest called the “Technovation Challenge”, designed to introduce young women to coding – and it is here where Sroor and her team created the prototype for Early Alert.
Twenty girls from Gaza, most with no prior background in programming, participated in the four-month competition between January and April of this year.
Each team came up with an idea for a web or mobile application to help to solve a community problem in Gaza, then worked on the technical design and business plan. Gaza Sky Geeks provided the workspace and coaches, said Mai Temraz, the former head of women’s and mentorship programming.
Though none of the teams made it to the finals, Temraz said their output was promising.
“With such high unemployment in Gaza, tech is a good way for girls to get jobs. We’re trying to build a community here to help them,” Temraz said.
With a population of 1.8 million, the Gaza Strip has been crippled by an ongoing Israeli and Egyptian siege, leading to an unemployment crisis. The tech startup industry, which has been growing quickly throughout the Palestinian territories, provides a strong opportunity for people with web development skills, said Shadi Atshan, the director of Leaders Organisation, a seed accelerator in Ramallah.
Between 2013 and 2016, Leaders helped to launch more than four dozen startups, 20 of which secured investment. Over the next three years, they expect to triple that figure. “If you have good technical skills in Palestine, you’ll get hired directly,” Atshan said.
With such high unemployment in Gaza, tech is a good way for girls to get jobs. We're trying to build a community here to help them.
It can be challenging for women to enter this world, however.
“Tech is so male-dominated currently, and women are finding it difficult to penetrate it, to rise through the ranks and get to the top,” Ambar Amleh, a venture capitalist in Ramallah, told Al Jazeera.
Temraz and Amleh said there are often expectations that a woman must take care of the home, or take a job that does not require her to work too many hours. This is why Gaza Sky Geeks is specifically targeting women: “Many times I’ve had to talk to a girl’s family, to convince them. We try to treat each girl as a special case, to make it personal, because startups are still a new thing in Gaza,” Temraz said.
Gaza Sky Geeks also provides small stipends for girls and women to travel to and from the al-Rimal office.
Alaa Khattab, a 24-year-old member of the Gaza Sky Geeks female-only “coding club” – founded in July to teach programming and entrepreneurship to women and girls – says she wants to learn coding so that one day she can start her own business in Gaza.
“My dream is to start my own programming or web design company, that will be able to create software to help solve Gaza’s problems,” Khattab told Al Jazeera, noting that she hopes to develop an app to teach programming to children in a way that is both fun and educational.
The coding club currently consists of 15 girls and young women who meet once a week for three-hour sessions. They learn computer science and “soft skills”, such as how to behave in a professional environment and how to present their ideas with confidence, Alqrenawi said.
Khattab, who already knows one coding language and is currently taking online courses to learn two more, said that the computer science field presents a big opportunity for Gaza.
“I see my sister’s children; they’re very good with technology. They know how to use smartphones and laptops from a very young age, but they’re always just playing games online. Why not put their technical skills to good use?” she said. “Then, when they graduate from college, they’ll know what they want to do. They can be employed, and make a positive change in Gaza.”
Coding club member Abeer Karam, 19, said that her experience during the 2014 war inspired her to use technology to make a difference in people’s lives.
“I saw people in Gaza who had lost their arms [in the war], and who had to ask someone for help every time they needed to get something out of their bag,” Karam told Al Jazeera, describing how she wanted to create a backpack that uses voice-activation technology to affix itself on to the back of someone who has lost their arms. The backpack would move up and down on a set of retractable electronic stilts.
Amleh says that many women in Gaza graduate from programmes focusing on science, technology, engineering and maths.
“The problem is that we lose them between university and joining the job force,” she added. “Because of the high unemployment rate, when it comes to prioritising who gets the job, unfortunately it continues to be men. There’s a very limited number of jobs in these fields, and they typically go to men.”