Mercy Corps honors head of Gaza humanitarian operation with Ellsworth Culver Leadership Award

October 23, 2009

Isdud Al Najjar and four-month-old son travel to Portland to accept award after months of negotiations with Israel

Portland, OR – This week, Mercy Corps presented the Ellsworth Culver Leadership Award to one of its exceptional staff members, Isdud Al Najjar, Program Manager for Economic Recovery in the Gaza Strip. Isdud fearlessly led the agency’s humanitarian response earlier this year when tensions between Israel and Hamas boiled over to an almost month-long war.

The conflict is reported to have killed more than 1,300 Palestinians (almost one-third of them children) and 14 Israelis, caused an estimated $1.9 billion in damages and devastated the lives of many already impoverished Palestinians.

Isdud spent the first days of the war confined to her house with her two small children, listening to nearby shelling, while mobilizing her team despite spotty telephone service. After the initial days of the conflict, Isdud led distribution of necessities like food and blankets throughout Gaza and helped start recovery and post-trauma programs for children.

“Operating in an environment as difficult as war-torn Gaza requires vision, creativity and tremendous leadership skills,” said Mercy Corps CEO Neal Keny-Guyer. “This is one of the many reasons why Mercy Corps has chosen to honor Isdud Al Najjar with the Ellsworth Culver Leadership Award. She exemplifies the best in humanitarian service and commitment.”

But travel to Portland to accept the award was a highly complicated and convoluted process, despite more than two months of coordination between Mercy Corps and the Israeli authorities to arrange Isdud’s departure from Gaza and passage into Jordan. The process of getting approved to leave Gaza is fraught with arbitrary requirements, lacking clear guidelines and requiring permits for every step of the process. Isdud was required to have a U.S. diplomatic escort every time she left Gaza for appointments in Jerusalem as well as when she departed for Amman, Jordan to board her flight.

For weeks, Isdud was stuck – a victim of politics and the strained relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Permission for her and her four-month-old son to leave Gaza was granted only a few days prior to the awards ceremony that was re-scheduled due to her application process being delayed.

In addition to emergency response work, she leads Mercy Corps’ programs to help rebuild the Gazan economy. This includes Cash-for-Work programming which employs women and men in a variety of jobs – as seamstresses, cooks, repair specialists for farming and fishing equipment – that benefit their communities and further stimulate the local economy. Unemployment in Gaza stands between 40-50% (the highest in the world) and 80% of Gaza’s 1.5 million people live below the poverty line.

This week’s award, established in memoriam of the Mercy Corps’ late co-founder Ellsworth Culver, honors the best and brightest of Mercy Corps’ staff who show exceptional leadership skills and an entrepreneurial vision for improving the lives of people around the globe.