Khalil Salim and Reem al-Aweiti, in front of the building that once housed Mutaurin. Photo by Gisha
Khalil Salim and Reem al-Aweiti, in front of the building that once housed Mutaurin. Photo by Gisha

The couple in the photo, Khalil Salim and Reem al-Aweiti, are married and also business partners. Together with Israa al-Ghoul, they own an information technology (IT) company in Gaza City. They called it Mutaurin, “the developers” in Arabic. In the photo, Khalil and Reem stand in front what’s left of the building where the company operated.

Reem and Israa studied at the Islamic University and Khalil at Al Quds Open University. Together they decided to develop a smartphone application for deaf people. The application converts words and expressions into sign language. The idea and its implementation impressed enough people to win the three young entrepreneurs a grant from the Danish foreign ministry’s aid agency, DANIDA. When they were just starting, they received a work space at a lab at the University College of Applied Sciences (UCAS) in Gaza as well as mentoring in areas like marketing and technical development. They received funding for equipment and eventually began working on two additional projects.

They had more than a moment of optimism, like when they were able to move into rented offices in the al-Basha building in Gaza City. Besides Khalil, Reem and Israa, the company hired five additional staff members and began ratcheting up achievements. “Our standard of living rose as the company developed”, says Reem. “We started thinking about remodeling and about a new car. We also started planning for the future”.

You’d think IT would be the perfect kind of business to open in Gaza and that severe travel restrictions wouldn’t harm operations. But there’s more to it than that. The young entrepreneurs had hoped and attempted to collaborate with a West Bank-based company, but none of the three founders were able to get a permit to travel through Erez Crossing, and, despite the technological alternative, real cooperation is hard to come by without actual face time. In May 2014, they tried to get permits to travel to the West Bank to participate in a Palestinian information and communications technologies incubator conference, which was a prerequisite for receiving financial support, but Israel allows travel out of Gaza only to veteran, well-established businesspeople, not promising young entrepreneurs.

Exit through the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing also proved difficult. In June 2014, they were supposed to attend a regional seminar hosted by Microsoft in Qatar, but Rafah was closed and it was impossible to travel there. In January 2014, they had been offered an opportunity to participate in a business management competition in Egypt, but once again, they were unable to do so due to access restrictions at Rafah. Despite these difficulties, the company managed to carve itself a niche in the market. It had begun developing management and sales systems as well as doing web design. Reem, the head of marketing, secured a contract to design seven websites for a Saudi company by the name of MagicTech.

And then came the summer, and with it, another military operation. They had managed to finish only two of the seven web sites they were contracted to design before Operation Protective Edge began. The building where the company was headquartered was bombed to rubble. “It was shocking to discover that our dreams, our future, had blown up in the blink of an eye”, says Khalil. The company found itself unable to finish the remaining five websites to which it had committed itself. It was also unable to provide support and repair services to other clients whose websites had been finished. Not only did they lose their offices and equipment, lengthy power outages rendered it difficult to work from home, coordinate work hours with clients abroad, or meet deadlines.

They did manage to push a few deadlines back and they’ve returned to labs at UCAS on a temporary basis. No one knows what the future holds. Rents have soared in the wake of the destruction and it’s unclear if they’ll manage to get new equipment and secure new clients and investors amidst so much uncertainty. The business, like any other, requires constant learning, they explain, as there are new developments every day. It’s hard to succeed without meeting new people and learning from them, without attending professional conferences. To make it in IT, you need more than a computer, some talent and an internet connection. You need electricity and a place to work out of. And you also need freedom of movement.