RAFAH, Gaza—I’m sitting around a table at the Rural Women’s Development Society (RWDS) near the Gaza Strip’s southernmost border with a group of women discussing grassroots agricultural initiatives and drinking sugary sage tea. For a second, the sound of a war plane suffocates our words. One of the center’s leaders looks out the window and rolls her big brown eyes. “As I was saying,” she repeats, “we are dealing with real threats here.”
Threats to Palestinians living in Rafah include more than just military aggression. The population density in the city center is 10 times greater than that of the most packed residential New York neighborhoods—and minus the high rises. Access to food is hit-or-miss, depending on meager staples allowed through Israeli border terminals, and distributed by high profile relief agencies. Unsanitary water trickles from faucets, while precious parcels of farmland are swept up by the ever-expanding buffer zone that is unilaterally defined by Israeli authorities. Yet some Palestinians in Rafah refuse to give up, despite their inadequate access to life-giving resources. At RWDS, the memory of one woman’s vision is the glue that holds the group together. Her name was Fatima. Fatima Abu Shalouf began working the fields in her early 20s as a helper to her husband Hamdan. At that time, Gaza was more open, and Hamdan found a job inside Israel as a day worker in an ice cream factory. Tired from traveling back and forth, he turned the farm over to Fatima. She managed the land meticulously, experimenting with different plants and basic irrigation. Fatima raised nine children, instilling in each of them a respect for nature and the skills to harvest their own food. Around the time of the outbreak of the second intifada, food insecurity spiked in Gaza, and Fatima felt obliged to bring her knowledge to the community. She joined RWDS and began advocating local agricultural control—starting with seeds. Women poured into her training courses and excitedly went home to pilot their own projects like saving seeds in their kitchen sinks and planting gardens on their rooftops. And when the siege hit in 2006, Fatima was ready to take her idea to the next level to further protect her people by establishing the first seed bank in Gaza. Two years later, Fatima was diagnosed with severe bone cancer. Sick but determined, she was called upon to give lectures to thousands of farmers and had already become a household name around Rafah. By the time the first airstrikes signaled the beginning of Operation “Cast Lead,” Fatima was losing her own battle for her life. From her hospital bed where she laid next to victims of the war, she asked her family to carry on her work. A few months after the war ended, Fatima died. She was 58. “When we lost Fatima, we were in shock,” says one of the women at the center, pouring a fresh cup of steaming tea. “But we were more than determined to realize her dream,” another chimes in. In late 2009, with the help of Fatima’s sisterhood at RWDS—and the unyielding support of her husband Hamdan—Gaza’s first seed bank was established on her property and opened to the community. Since then, the more than 200 registered women members of RWDS have established 10 seed saving units benefiting upwards of a thousand people. We conclude our meeting and several of us pile into a waiting cab, bright yellow, with Egyptian ’80s music blaring from the speakers. To say that I’m excited to see the Abu Shalouf family would be an understatement. I have spent time with them on my last two visits to Gaza, and they treat me like an adopted family member. We reach the farm, and Hamdan is standing in the doorway with a huge smile. “Your sister is here,” he yells upstairs to his sons. One of his granddaughters skips over to give me a hug. Since my last visit, Fatima’s family has set up a seed drying station and turned one of the rooms of their home into a small storehouse. Outside, crops are flourishing . “In the last two days we planted okra and corn,” Fatima and Hamadan’s 22-year-old son Mohammed explains proudly. Farmers from around Rafah come and go to collect seeds for their families and learn the tricks of the trade. The Abu Shaloufs also raise animals on their property and have recently set up a fish pond. “I wish you could have met mom,” Mohammed says later. “It would take a few volumes of books to tell her story.” But from rooftop gardens to family dinner tables, Fatima’s story lives on in Rafah.