Bisan Abu Alfateh always knew what she wanted to do. From the time she was a young girl, there was no doubt that, one day, she'd be a pharmacist. "It was my dream," says Bisan. "And it was my mother's dream for me too."
Her mother beamed with pride when Bisan graduated in 2010 with top grades from the pharmacy department at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. But even for a student with a 90-percent grade average, her job prospects were bleak. That's the way it is in the Gaza Strip, where the unemployment rate hovers around 40 percent.
Like recent graduates around the world, Bisan started looking for a job immediately after graduation. "I was getting very discouraged after so much time passed and I had no offers. Many of my fellow graduates felt the same way. I spent almost a year looking for work."
One day, she read in the local paper about a program run by Catholic Relief Services that offers paid internships to college graduates in Gaza. Bisan applied and was called in for an interview.
"I couldn't believe it when I was selected," she says. After the 3-month internship with a local pharmacy ended, the manager offered her a full-time job. "This program has really changed me," says Bisan. "My attitude, my confidence and my general outlook on life are all better now."
Nearly 18,000 Apply for 850 Positions
Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and run by CRS, the internship program is designed to help young people in Gaza get work experience and earn an income as they begin their careers. Anne Marie Marsa, CRS project manager in Gaza, says response to the program has surpassed all expectations.
"Initially, we had nearly 18,000 college graduates apply," Marsa says. "We selected and placed more than 800 applicants with participating businesses like pharmacies, banks and nonprofit agencies. The ideal situation is that the interns get full-time jobs, which are hard to come by in Gaza."
With a population of about 1.7 million, Gaza is roughly the size of Washington, DC. More than 75 percent of the population is under the age of 25. "And with such a high unemployment rate, that means a lot of young people are out of work and extremely frustrated," says Matt Davis, CRS country representative in Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza.
"We want to target that group and have a positive impact on them," he adds. "We want to give them an opportunity to use the skills they have—to put into practice the skills they've studied in a productive way so that they can stay positive and look to the future with a degree of hope."
Since landing her full-time job, Bisan's day is busier than ever. "I wake up early, say my prayers, help my mother with housework, then leave for the pharmacy at 7 a.m. I never know what my day will bring. Sometimes, because we have no electricity, I work at the pharmacy by candlelight," she says.
"Life here is difficult, but I'm so grateful to have found this program that led to my full-time job," says Bisan. "I feel better prepared to face life now. I hope this program continues so that other college graduates in Gaza can have the same opportunity I've had."
Liz O'Neill is a CRS communications officer covering Asia, Europe and the Middle East. She is based in Baltimore, Maryland.