Published on Arab Voices

Looking back: An exciting opportunity for a Gaza-based entrepreneur

Photo of Basem Khalaf at the World Bank Youth Summit Photo of Basem Khalaf at the World Bank Youth Summit

I left Gaza for the first time in my life in November 2019, when I was selected to participate in the World Bank’s Smarter Cities for Resilient Future Youth Summit, an event held almost annually to engage thousands of young people in some of the world’s most pressing topics.

My name is Basem Khalaf and I am one of about a million youths to be born and raised in one of the most crowded areas on earth—the territory of Gaza, where the movements of people, labor and goods are limited, and 78% of talented university graduates are unemployed. I am lucky in that my career and my job of telecommunication engineer and social entrepreneur make me part of a relatively privileged minority, able to use its talent to support its community.

From the outset, I knew that a degree alone would not be sufficient to allow me to improve my life or the world around me. That is why, as soon as I began doing it, I sought out practical experiences, such as professional training and internships in local firms and organizations, even though most of them were unpaid. After a few years, I had over 2,500 hours of experience in telecom engineering, leadership, business and entrepreneurship. I was thrilled when I became a member of the Global Shapers Community with the World Economic Forum and, after a few months, Ooredoo Palestine offered me a position.

At the Youth Summit in Washington, DC, I was to be a lead facilitator for a two-day” Case Challenge,” technically supported by the accounting firm, Deloitte, and dedicated to solving real-life issues with a cohort of youth from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). When, finally, I was able to travel, it took me three days to get from Gaza City to Cairo, enough time to prepare for leading my session. From there, I flew to Washington on November 30. Six months later, it is strange to think that, because of the Coronavirus crisis, I could not do that now.

The MENA Youth Platform sponsored my travel and accommodation to enable me to attend the Summit. The two-day summit started when, with my co-facilitator, I welcomed 18 other young people from various MENA countries. We led them in a brainstorming session to come up with solutions to sustainability challenges that exist in the real world. Five teams started work on three topics, tackling issues involving energy, mobility, health, and air pollution. They then presented their innovative ideas to a team of World Bank specialists.

A series of meetings were also organized that were a unique opportunity for me to share my on-the-ground perspective of a Gaza-based entrepreneur with World Bank staff. I was able to share my life experience and my views on World Bank projects in Gaza.

In fact, Anna Bjerde, MENA’ Director of Strategy and Operations at the time, told us that, by launching innovative new businesses and expanding economic opportunities in the face of tremendous hardships, young Palestinian men and women demonstrated “even greater levels of resolve and ingenuity.” Our entrepreneurial spirit testified to the vast creative potential of youth in the region: “Supporting and harnessing this potential is a top priority for the World Bank Group,” she said. This meeting encouraged me to pursue my entrepreneurial efforts, and I was inspired to look for Master degree opportunities in data science to increase my impact.

I also had the opportunity to meet Pia Peeters, Manager of the MENA Social Development Practice. We explored ways to build on the work of Palestinian entrepreneurs and link them up with other businesses and social enterprises in the region. She told me the MENA Youth Platform I had been part of was set up precisely to showcase such successful examples of youth-led and -oriented experiences of social innovation and resilient living.

For me, the entire experience in DC was transformational. It helped me to shift from the usual Gaza, war-heavy narrative, bringing me instead to an international exchange on business development and social entrepreneurship opportunities.



Basem Khalaf

Social Development Consultant, West Bank & Gaza Office, World Bank

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