Aysha Abd El-Qader Ehmaid (Um El-Abed) was an exceptional Palestinian woman who faced many of the hardships typical of life in the Gaza Strip. Aysha married when she was 14 and in 1979, when she was a 40-year-old widow, she started her own business. This microenterprise supported a family of 26.
Aysha worked out of a small room in her house, selling second-hand clothing. As Gaza’s garment industry developed, she sold locally made clothes for women and children.
“I have been working like this for the past 35 years; my passion is to trade, buy, and sell,” Aysha once said.
When UNRWA started its microfinance programme in 1994 to finance group-lending to women home-workers and street-merchants, she was one of its first clients. Over the next 15 years she borrowed loans worth US$ 40,000 to finance her work.
In 1995, Aysha started to travel to Egypt and Jordan with suitcases full of goods to trade. Like legions of other women cross-border traders she would lug cheap Israeli goods to sell in the popular markets of Amman and Cairo. She would then stock up on products that would sell well in Gaza, such as kitchenware and clothing for women and children.
Aysha also sold her own embroidery, which she always worked on, at home or in the marketplace. When asked about her embroidery, Aysha admitted: “I am like a cigarette addict. I crave it. All the patterns are stored in my head. Even though I can’t read, I can copy beautiful patterns from pictures in magazines.”
Before each trip, Aysha usually took a working capital loan from UNRWA that enabled her to buy goods to trade. A canny trader, she knew the value of good connections, chiding merchants and bargaining for goods at affordable prices.
“If you take a loan, you have to pay it back,” was her advice for other women who wanted to start their own businesses.
Aysha continued to travel outside Gaza until early 2006, when the borders were restricted and the goods of itinerant, cross-border merchants were often confiscated. As she was no longer able to trade goods between Gaza and Egypt, Aysha increased her embroidery and concentrated on buying goods to sell in her own neighbourhood.
After June 2007, the borders were closed almost entirely and the embargo on Gaza tightened, leading clothing producers to double their prices. As a result, Aysha found it difficult to continue trading with any profit: “I used to pay NIS 20-25 for a kid’s suit, but now it costs me more than NIS 50.”
After that, she only marketed her own embroidery, which earned her just NIS 200 each month – not enough to meet the needs of her family. As with tens of thousands of other Gaza families, the Israeli embargo destroyed Aysha’s family’s self-reliance, employment, and entrepreneurship, but not their hope.
Sadly for all who knew her, Aysha passed away in January 2008. She will always be remembered as a vigorous and dynamic businesswoman, whose work was dedicated to making a better life for her family. Born and living in hardship throughout her life, Aysha - Um El-Abed - was an indomitable, industrious, generous, brave-hearted soul who effused love and humour.