“The best way to reach people is through food,” Manar, a leader in the Association of Bani Nai’m Cooperative for Food Processing, told World Vision staff.
This is the game-changing philosophy of a group of women, of which Manar is a part, in a small town called Bani Na’im, near the Palestinian city of Hebron located in the southern part of the West Bank. The Association of Bani Na’im Cooperative for Food Processing is composed of a talented group of women who are mobilizing their community to create lasting change for children and future generations.
Abeer told World Vision, “Many women in the group and the community have a bachelor’s degree but can’t find jobs."
Wrought by poverty—due to Israeli restrictions, continued water scarcity, and the degradation of land resources—the Bani Na’im lacks infrastructure to meet the needs of the community. The deteriorating political situation and increased restrictions on freedom of movement (including access to the Israeli job market and confiscation of more land) increased the town’s unemployment rate. Lack of access to water has limited the community’s ability to invest in its land and other natural resources also decreased the levels of food security, impacting children most of all. In the town’s most remote areas, such as the Al-Arabia, residents have trouble accessing reliable transportation and many of those with access have trouble affording it.
Unwilling to accept these circumstances, a group of women joined forces to address the needs of their community. One woman in particular, Abeer, a committed mother, has taken an active role towards making this happen. As graduate of Al-Quds University in the West Bank, Abeer’s first job out of college was working at a local Palestinian yogurt factory. It was there she learned the ins and outs of food processing to complement her bachelor’s degree. After that, Abeer went on to work as a school teacher with the Palestinian Ministry of Education until she and other women in Bani Na’im decided to create an organization of women, known as the Association of Bani Na’im Cooperative for Food Processing. Their goal was to create a better future for their children and their community on a holistic levelAbeer and the rest of the women started a food processing factory in the village that would supply healthy food to school canteens in the village and surrounding areas. For a long time, the canteens mostly sold unhealthy food; including chips, candy, and other highly-processed foods.
Abeer and the rest of the Bani Na’im Cooperative women went to the Ministry of Education and Health and brought them on board with their plan. In 2010, the Ministry of Education and Health had begun to pay closer attention to food standards and calories in school canteens. Abeer and the rest of the cooperative seized this opportunity to make a lasting change in the lives of the students and the rest of the community. While they felt strongly on about being independent from other organizations or forms of aid, they approached World Vision about giving them a kick start. World Vision agreed to pay the costs of renting the school canteens until they were making enough of a profit to afford the rent themselves. After just a year, the women were able to run their canteens without the need of outside support.
“This benefits the community,” says Halima. “We partner with others to bring healthy food the community, especially on special occasions,” she adds.
Their goal was to become self-sustainable, reach out to women, and provide children with healthier food options. Abeer told World Vision, “Many women in the group and the community have a bachelor’s degree but can’t find jobs. We encourage them to be members of the association.” The food processing initiative became a critical source of income for many of the women working there.
Abeer’s mother, Zakia, even got involved. When her husband got ill and was unable to work, the job at the food processing factory helped pay for her younger daughter’s (Abeer’s sister’s) school expenses. When asked about what she thought of her daughter’s role in the initiative, she said: “She puts great effort into the project to make it work.”
But, to these women, it isn’t just about making a living. “We are trying to support the local community, not just the women working in the cooperative,” says Abeer. Halima, another woman working at the food processing factory, comes from a small family. She loves coming to work because she can cook for many people. “This benefits the community,” says Halima. “We partner with others to bring healthy food the community, especially on special occasions,” she adds.
And, the word is spreading. At this past year’s Grape Festival in the Hebronite town of Halhoul, the women made various grape-based treats including: jam, Palestinian dibis, raisins, and other products. By the end of the festival, the products were sold out and residents across the West Bank knew about the women’s incredible work.
The group, however, does not limit their work to just food, it also tackles education as well. Parents from the Al-Arabia area, a part of Bani Na’im that is extremely isolated from the rest of the village, had nowhere to send their children to kindergarten. The centre of the town was a 45 minute walk by foot and transportation was often too expensive. In response, the group established a kindergarten to serve the needs of the parents and children in that community. During its first year, the school served 60 children. Today, it serves 110 children and the school has gained a great reputation throughout the entire town of Bani Na’im, where parents from the centre of town are now choosing to bring their children to this kindergarten over others.
What began as a small informal local initiative has truly grown. The cooperative started with 21 members and is now at 45. The Bani Na’im community is supportive of these women and are inspired by their dedication to inspire true change in well-being of children.