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This Palestinian UN Environment Award Recipient Talks Empowering Women

You don’t see many women engineers coming out of Gaza but they do exist – Heba Al-Farra being one. This 30-year-old wife, mom-of-two, and environmental engineer from Palestine is humble yet hopeful. Being Palestinian has its challenges, she says, “To be Palestinian is not easy because your country is under occupation, your rights as a citizen are lost, and your dreams for a free and developed country are difficult. It means you are suffering.”

But she has hope for Palestinians to reach their dreams, and for Middle Eastern women to become leaders in the energy sector. Al-Farra is one of seven recipients of UN Environment’s 2018 Young Champions of the Earth prize and the founder of Women in Energy & Environment (WEE).

Environmental engineering is an unconventional career for women in Palestine, but Al-Farra knew she had to pursue her professional dreams. Born in Libya, she received her degree from the Islamic University of Gaza, before moving to Kuwait in 2012. She still lives there with her family, working as a trainer and development specialist.

Growing up in Gaza wasn’t always easy, she says. “Life in Palestine is so hard, especially in the Gaza Strip. We didn’t have enough water and electricity, and we couldn’t move or travel to any country because the borders are closed year-round. The situation is still difficult and people suffer from having no safety, no food, no water, and little electricity. Most dreams of the youth are lost – they don’t have the right to live the life they want.”

Despite the political and infrastructural challenges, Al-Farra’s mother, an Egyptian-educated medical doctor, supported her daughter, who realized her love for the environment at a young age. “I liked to discover how things worked, moved, and how they were created,” she explains. “I was part of many environmental initiatives, activities, and workshops, so I knew from an early age that I wanted to be an environmental leader. My mom inspired me and encouraged me to discover, to search, and to ask questions. She showed me how I could help my community from my specialized zone.”

During the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005, violence between the Israelis and Palestinians intensified. Al-Farra was at university at the time and had to cease her studies. “It was difficult to adapt to the conflict; it had many political problems. At that time, I felt there were no values behind life because while I was existing as a human, my dreams and hopes, and my family and friends were all in danger.”

It was during this time that Al-Farra realized she wanted to be active in helping women in her region excel at their science goals. “Because you are women living in the Middle East, in some places your movement is limited, and you face many social restrictions,” she explains. “It’s not easy to do anything without getting the support and power from your society.” A few years later, Al-Farra launched WEE to inspire women in the energy sector to lead. “I wondered how women could lead the change in their communities and be part of the solution for a better and cleaner environment. So I established an organization to let women play a vital role in how they can save natural resources, reduce pollutants, and be aware of and involved in sustainable solutions.”

For Al-Farra, it’s about equipping this and the next generation of women in Gaza and in the region. “We need to inspire our women to do something for their communities so they can present themselves as Arab women making a difference to the culture and mindset of the Arab people. Women in the Middle East and North Africa are strong, educated, and willing to know more.”

As a recipient of the Young Champions of the Earth prize, Al-Farra is familiar with the UN’s theme for this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8: Think equal, build smart, innovate for change. For her, the theme means women must be a part of the change and it must happen in all sectors.

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