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A mother in search of peace

West Bank and Gaza, October 23, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Isdud Al Najjar manages Mercy Corps' programs in Gaza. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

It's big news around the Portland headquarters this week that one of our most senior field workers, Isdud Al-Najjar, is in town. That's because her home is in the Gaza Strip, where the odds of getting out are about the same as winning Powerball.

For Isdud and her four-month-old son, Mahmoud, to make it this far required both political muscle — the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem intervened with the Israelis on her behalf — and patience. Bureaucratic delays caused her to miss a gathering of Mercy Corps leaders from all over the world held here earlier in the week.

But she got here in time to receive the Ells Culver Leadership Award, named for our late co-founder, for steering the agency's emergency response to the 22-day Israel-Hamas conflict that broke out last December. We transported and distributed more than $1 million of food, non-food items and medical supplies to the Gaza Strip.

This afternoon she spoke to a packed conference room of Mercy Corps employees, laying out Gaza's dire economic circumstances: 80 percent of the population in poverty. About half unemployed. Fishing, farming and industrial output ground nearly to a halt; she estimates 5,000 factories have shuttered since June 2007, when Israel imposed its ongoing blockade of construction materials.

Today, Isdud and her team — now 50 strong — are helping Gazans make ends meet. Putting people to work making snacks for preschoolers and sewing school uniforms. Offering psychosocial counseling to young people and their parents who witnessed the horrors of the conflict. Helping young Gazans leap across their closed border by connecting them online with peer groups in the Middle East and the U.S.

These programs have made Mercy Corps one of the most transparent and accountable humanitarian-aid outfits in the Strip, Isdud told us. But her fellow Gazans, she reminded us, would much rather hold a job than take a handout. "Humanitarian assistance is required. But a political solution is the most important thing to us."

She'll have a chance to press her case next week in Washington, where our advocacy staff has lined up meetings with Members of Congress and State Department officials. She kept her Mercy Corps audience spellbound for an hour with a single Powerpoint slide (a map of Gaza). With luck, this 33-year-old mother of three will have the same effect on our nation's policymakers.

Because for all our missteps in the Middle East, Gazans still pin their hopes on us. Their initial burst of optimism about Obama may have faded, Isdud said, but they remain hopeful that this administration will broker a political solution. "There is still time," she says. "We will see."