Female Gaza Engineer Breaks New Ground in Helping Haiti Rebuild
The construction business in Gaza, like in other countries around the world, is dominated by men. However, a growing number of women are entering this industry. Huda Atalla, an engineer who has worked with UNRWA since 2002, is one of them.
At 33 years old Huda has seen and done more than many in Gaza can dream of, despite the immense challenges she faces both as a woman and as a refugee. As an ambitious and talented young engineer, Huda has worked relentlessly to forge her own future and has refused to be dissuaded by the barriers she has encountered along the way.
Some time back, Huda applied to be a field engineer in a United Nations peacekeeping mission. She was eager to learn what it felt like to work in an international context, and wanted to share her skills in another country. Not long after, she received a call from the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) – where reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake of January 2010 required as many hands on deck as possible. MINUSTAH wanted Huda on board.
With UNRWA's support, in September 2010, Huda travelled from Gaza to Haiti. She left via the Rafah crossing which is only possible for those who have visas to a third country or are students, foreign nationals or those with severe medical conditions. Once in Haiti, Huda's expertise and background as an engineer in Gaza made her a valuable asset to the team. At the same time, Huda herself learned an immense amount from the experience.
Huda was delighted to see the women of Haiti participating alongside men in the reconstruction of their country. Women took up positions as drivers, sanitation labourers and police, all professions usually deemed fit for men only. She also marveled at the ability of Haitians to remain positive amid destruction and devastation – singing, dancing, laughing and helping each other to continue smiling despite the terrible sadness and loss they had endured. On a technical level, Huda was impressed to see the rapid response of MINUSTAH to the crisis, learning important lessons on how to construct temporary shelters as quickly as possible.
Back to Blockaded Gaza
Huda has since returned to Gaza and is playing an important role in UNRWA's reconstruction efforts there. Back in Gaza, memories of her time in Haiti – working alongside men and women of all nationalities to reconstruct a country in need – continue to inspire her each day. Yet, she admits that she is frustrated by the situation in Gaza: "The difference between working in Haiti and in Gaza is that reconstruction in Haiti is limited by the problem of stability there, while reconstruction in Gaza remains limited by the shortage of construction materials due to the blockade."
The ongoing blockade on Gaza has had a devastating impact on the construction sector. Prior to the blockade, more than 50 per cent of the truckloads which entered Gaza each week contained construction materials. Today, less than 20 per cent of the truckloads entering Gaza contain construction materials. Essential items such as cement and gravel are permitted entry only for specifically approved construction projects. As a result, many construction workers, contractors and engineers have lost their jobs, and those who remain in Gaza are frequently out of work.