Nalan launches her own startup

Nalan never forgot the excitement of being part of Datrios’ team in Jordan. “I love that you can be creative, that you can lead a team, that everyone is on fire,” she says. “I love that you can take things into your own hands, even when you are only twenty-something-years-old.”

When she returned from Jordan, Datrios could not afford to hire her. Though Datrios had covered the cost of her trip, Nalan had been working for free. The permit to leave Gaza and the opportunity to travel were big enough perks that the company did not need to pay anyone. The Gazans we work with are hungry to go abroad and be part of the world.

Nalan found a marketing job at a regional tourism company , but she did not enjoy the work. The organization followed a top-down approach that left little room for creativity. Nalan is too strong-willed to put up with situations she does not like.

Money also did not pencil out. She was earning $400/month and it was costing her almost that much to commute to work because of lack of safe public transport  in Gaza. She had promised her mother to help earn an income, but this was not worth it, so she quit.

As soon as Nalan told me she was leaving her job, I offered her an internship at Gaza Sky Geeks. She had already been hanging out at our office every afternoon since she had been selected as one of the Intaliqi “little sisters.” Intaliqi is a program designed by Gaza Sky Geeks and sponsored by Google for Entrepreneurs to empower women entrepreneurs in Gaza. We needed someone talented and hungry on our team who would learn quickly. Nalan joined us as a social media and outreach intern, a flexible position that would also allow her to work on her startup on the side. She had an idea she was already developing: 99Designs for the Arab market.

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Nalan with her sister, after winning the most votes on Day 1 of Startup Weekend Gaza, June 2014 

The conflict 

During the conflict this past summer, I received notes from Nalan regularly. The first one read, “I thought I was going to die today. I looked out of the window and it looked like the air strike was targeting my house. It hit a neighbor’s house. My whole body is still shaking.”

Nalan paused work on her startup to help her community instead. She created her own aid campaign with three more young social media activists like herself and they started working to help the refugees during the conflict. Her team grew to more than 15 young people. They provided basic supplies for more than 50 families a day in an incredibly challenging environment. Nalan kept women a campaign priority, since the campaign she was leading was one of the few that included women on their teams. They also visited children in shelters and tried to cheer them up. She collected pictures and stories to share with the world. She always believed that she could change the world, and now she was.

One day, I heard that she had decided to leave Gaza. Her mother is Libyan and her foreign passport would allow them to leave on a few buses that were being organized to get foreigners – or Gazans with visas to travel abroad – out to Egypt. Nalan’s older sister, her mother, and Nalan got on a bus to leave. This was right when news broke that an Israeli soldier had just been captured. Or so it seemed. Later they announced he had died. But in that moment, tensions dramatically increased. Air strikes took place all around the bus that Nalan and her family were on, and there was nowhere they could go. The whole conflict had been scary, but this moment was by far the most terrifying.

“Twelve hours we stayed between the Palestinian and Egyptian borders. where the bombing and airstrikes were nonstop. No one was able to save us. This was the worst experience of my life and the first time I saw that my mother was scared; she held my sister and I, and start talking as if it was the last thing she would ever say to us:, “I love you my daughters. I’m sorry this is happening. Pray with me now.” I cried because I didn’t want to die this way, stuck in between lands, helpless, and weak. I held them both tight and prayed for strength and new life.” But finally, Nalan’s bus started moving again, carrying her on to a new life in Cairo.

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Pictures from Nalan’s Twitter and Facebook feeds during the conflict last summer

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by staff writer

Iliana Montauk
Gaza Sky Geeks Director, Mercy Corps Digital Economy Program Director