Born in Jenin refugee camp, Um Shehadeh is originally from the village of Zar’in near Haifa. While both her parents come from a farming community the political realities that left them refugees in the city of Jenin made it impossible for them to continue in their agricultural tradition.
Um Shehadeh is now reviving her ancestral heritage in the village of Burqin, just a couple of kilometers from the refugee camp. Aside from growing local varieties of zucchini, squash, and cucumbers, Um Shehadeh makes sun-dried tomatoes, giant couscous maftoul and organic olive oil soap with the women’s cooperative in her village.
She also operates a small chicken hatchery and works on a sewing machine hemming cloths. Her interests are reading and maths but unfortunately, she never finished school. “I left school in my senior year because our situation at home was difficult so I learned sewing and started earning a living.”
After she joined the women’s coop of Burqin and the Palestine Fair Trade Association, she took an English class through PFTA. As she studied, she realised she had leadership skills and stood in the elections in the Palestine Fair Trade Association. When she was elected to the board, she was the only woman. Um Shehadeh says, “PFTA and Canaan Fair Trade create a new cultural atmosphere for women. I am engaged in my community in a way I did not think I could be before. I feel supported by my coop and by the farmers themselves. This shows me that aside from making maftoul and sun-dried tomatoes I am also part of a movement that is creating progress through agricultural work.”
Um Shehadeh and the other women of the Burqin coop no longer feel that independence is a far-fetched goal. “Canaan Fair Trade supports us in becoming a stronger coop. They offer us space, raw material and most of all they buy our products. This is important because now we are looking at land to buy for our coop to create our own women’s center. The women will participate in paying the expense of the place and Canaan helped us get a grant to start.”
“This means we will establish a women share coop in our village and it will give us capital. Each woman will own shares, and rights to the land and the profit. This is what will make our lives more independent and most of all healthy, self-sustainable and economically viable. This is huge for us!”Um Shehadeh
Alongside the women’s center Um Shehadeh dreams of having an international center in Burqin. “Our village is unique. We have one of the oldest churches in the world and our people are very welcoming. Our kids love meeting people from different places in the world. We can work on this and create a center in our village where people will learn about us. And our kids, who are imprisoned by the occupation and the wall, can meet the world by meeting our international visitors.
At a glance, Um Shehadeh may seem quiet, but it takes just a few minutes of conversation with her to discover that you have encountered a mega woman who is defying any limitations and standing steadfast as a lighthouse in an otherwise grim situation. Her daughter, Nour, which means light in Arabic, is already following her mother’s footsteps. She watches her mother making maftoul and offers her critique while filling the house with joyful laughter and then orders her mother, “Its time for you to take a break!”