It’s 4 AM in Surif, Palestine and although it’s still dark outside, Zeina is getting out of bed to start the day. As a woman in a region fraught with fear, unemployment and the constant fear of conflict, Zeina doesn’t find life easy. She shoulders the responsibility of raising a family and managing a household with very little money. Soon after breakfast, Zeina visits her elderly mother who at 88 is frail and in need of daily care. With no insurance or affordable medical treatment, Zeina looks after her mother and makes sure she has what she needs.

On bad days, when her mother is sick, Zeina can’t go to work. Today, though, she’s well enough to let Zeina go to her office. Here, Zeina oversees a small cooperative of women who make traditional Palestinian embroidery. A single hand-embroidered scarf can take over 100 hours of work and because the women are busy managing households, they’ll often take home their work and return the piece, finished and ready for sale.

The cooperative is a lifeline for these women, at a time when so many Palestinian men are unemployed – the Gaza strip has one of the world’s highest unemployment rates. Women’s work like sewing, that was once seen as a sideline job adding to the husband’s income, has become a vital living wage for the families of the craftswomen. Zeina loves her job. To her, it means earning an income to support her family, while continuing the beautiful traditions of her ancestors generations before her. For many of her coworkers, the money earned from embroidery is the sole source of family income.

Created behind the barbed wire and walls surrounding Palestine, the embroidered handicrafts of Zeina and her coworkers would have little chance of being sold or seen in the world outside, were it not for Sunbula. Sunbula is a fair trade organisation that buys goods from small groups like Zeina’s cooperative, and sells them to retailers in nearby Jerusalem and throughout the world, including our own Global Handicrafts shop. We sell pencil cases, soap and jewellery made by these and other Palestinian artisans.

Zeina doesn’t know much about Hong Kong, or the people who might buy her cooperative’s beautifully embroidered products. Yet, she enjoys the extra income that they generate and the freedom that comes from being fairly paid for a job well done. In a land where uncertainty reigns, Zeina cherishes that all the more closely.

Shop for Sunbula products at Global Handicrafts here.

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It’s a large courtyard, filled with people, like any other marketplace you might find in towns across the world. Colourful flags are strung around, and little stalls hold boxes of clothing and household goods. Yet, stepping into this marketplace in Haifa, Israel, it’s suddenly clear that this one is special.

In the left corner is a stand with a woman busy writing down names and contact details of half a dozen other people standing around her. There’s a positive atmosphere in the courtyard. In the back is a huge pile of furniture, all from Crossroads, all waiting for new homes. Looking around at the people browsing the goods, it’s suddenly clear what makes this ‘marketplace’ different: no money is changing hands. The ‘customers’ looking at the goods are refugees and others in need who have found themselves in desperate circumstances in Israel.

Between 1989 and 2006, almost a million people emigrated from the former Soviet Union to Israel, escaping violent conflicts and collapsed economies. For a nation with only 4.5 million at that time, it was a huge influx of people. In recent decades, Crossroads has helped supply NGOs like the one running  this  distribution ‘marketplace’ in Haifa. We’ve shipped more than 20 containers of goods to support refugees and new immigrants start life afresh in a place of safety.

Most recently, 2014 saw a new wave of immigrants from the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, many of whom have sought help from this distribution centre. “I had families here, the last year, who came with war visible in their eyes,” said Victor, the centre’s director, who was a refugee himself from the former Soviet Union. “They didn’t have food, they didn’t have a house to stay in. They had absolutely no idea where to go. They didn’t even have official status in Israel because that takes some time. In the meantime, they were just wandering through the streets – mothers, fathers and children, all together. They don’t speak the language and they don’t know Israeli culture, so these people need a lot of help getting through these first weeks here.”

The government helps these new arrivals with accommodation, but often the homes are bare. Furniture from Crossroads, given out through this distribution centre, has helped many such refugees move from having nothing, sleeping on the floor, to having a real home for their family.

“It happens all the time that they come to me and ask why we are helping them and why we are being so nice,” reflects Victor. “I always explain that I was not different than they were, and have been going through the same process as they are now. It’s my vision to offer them the same chance as I had: to start a new future here. Not in war, but in peace.”

Outside, in the marketplace, an elderly lady is leaving with some pieces of clothing and a smile on her face. No strings attached and no bill to pay. This is not a place to pay money for clothes, but a place to receive love and the chance to start a new life.

Crossroads Foundation Hong Kong

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The city of Bethlehem has attracted tourists seeking peace and meaning for centuries, and for local Bethlehem residents, this stream of tourists is an economic lifeline. In a region where jobs are so scarce, many small handicrafts shops have appeared, where Bethlehem craftsmen can earn an income selling olive wood carvings that symbolise the memory of Bethlehem for visitors.

There’s a darker side to Bethlehem’s woodcarving industry, though. Olive wood artisans often work in small spaces where generations of fine sawdust is thick on the walls, the floor, the roof and even in the garden outside. It takes a serious toll on the health of these craftspeople who often work with wood throughout their entire lives. They can develop coughs and respiratory problems, and even cancer.

For many of these artisans, this is just the way life goes. Their parents before them had worked in the same conditions, just like their grandparents and the generations before them.

One woman, Basma, saw the unsafe conditions faced by Bethlehem’s woodworkers and was determined to make a change. Heading up local enterprise Holy Land Handicrafts – whose wood carvings we sell in our own Global Handicrafts shop – she started making workplaces safer for the 35 workshops in the cooperative. At first, she met resistance. “Why change things from the way our ancestors have done things for generations?” the olive wood families asked her. With education and advocacy, though, Basma started to see people’s attitudes shift, and she finally found one woodworker named Raja, who agreed to let her help him adapt his workshop to make it safer and in line with fair trade principles.

An engineering team worked on Raja’s workshop for months. They re-painted the walls, cleaned out generations of wood dust, and most importantly, installed an extractor device that sucks up wood dust and coating fumes, removing them safely from the workspace. Raja coats his  wood carvings in lacquer to preserve them. Inhaling the fumes for many years had damaged Raja’s health.

“Before, I was coughing all the time when I put lacquer on the carvings,” he explains. “But since I’ve been using the extraction hood, I noticed that I’ve stopped coughing. I can breathe better and my health has improved. It really changed my life.”

In such a small community, it doesn’t take long for stories to spread. The fact that Raja had suddenly stopped coughing reached the ears of other artisans and their wives. Soon, dozens of other woodworking families were begging Holy Land Handicrafts to renovate their own shops too. Thus far, 9 shops have been renovated and many more are on the waiting list! It’s literally changing the health and lives of Bethlehem’s artisans. For their wives too, it’s a relief to know that their own sons, who intend to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, might escape the health problems that have plagued generations of local woodworkers. “Before the renovation, I wouldn’t allow my son to work in this business,” said one mother. “There was so much noise and dust everywhere. It just wasn’t safe and I didn’t want to expose my child to this, even if he wanted it himself. But because of the renovation, I’m now happy for my son to follow his father.”

Olive wood carvings from Holy Land Handicrafts are popular sellers in the Global Handicrafts shop, especially at Christmas time. Now we, and our customers, can breathe a little easier, knowing that the artisans can, too! It’s a joy to know that fair trade truly is changing, and saving lives.

Crossroads Foundation Hong Kong

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Many woodworkers in Bethlehem have seen their businesses suffer as violence and unrest plague the Middle Eastern region. The trade that once came from steady streams of tourists has been dramatically reduced. By purchasing these carved olive wood products, you are helping keep craftspeople and their families from unemployment and poverty during a time of social and political unrest.

majed o'adeh

Crossroads Foundation Hong Kong

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WWAzada was 14 years old when her father asked her to marry one of her cousins, hoping, as is common in some forms of Islam, that a husband who is a relative would treat her better than one who is a ‘stranger’.

It wasn’t the case. Azada’s husband mistreated and abused her. She had two daughters with him, and wondered how she’d ever be able to escape his cruelty. Finally her father agreed she should divorce, and she lived with him in Pakistan, performing difficult and low-paying labor to survive, until the Taliban fell in 2001.

Upon her return to Afghanistan’s capital Kabul with her family, Azada found a place that could help her rediscover her dignity and independence – Women for Women International. It’s an organisation that provides women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflict with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency. As they like to put it, “We’re changing the world one woman at a time”!

Azada enrolled in Women for Women International’s sponsorship program and learned to cut semi-precious stones for jewelry. Now she teaches other women the skills she acquired with Women for Women International. Her most prized possession is her certificate of employment. “I never thought that I would have the opportunity to support myself without a man,” Azada says. “Now… I am doing it!”

Global Handicrafts stocks some of the necklaces and earrings made by the women employed with Women for Women in Afghanistan. With lustrous fluorite, they showcase Afghanistan’s rich history of cutting natural precious stones into fine jewelry, while providing a solid source of income with which women like Azada can support themselves.

This Women’s Week, we applaud organisations like Women for Women for the outstanding work they do empowering those women who were once powerless!

Crossroads Foundation Hong Kong

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The tourist write-up made it sound idyllic to spend Easter in Jerusalem, a city filled with history. What it didn’t mention was the fact that the area would be filled with military and police for the holiday weekend. When Crossroads representatives took a follow-up trip to the region, they found the armed forces on 100% alert.

Israel_girls_on_chairsThe media had extended the call to the population at large. “If you own a gun, carry it,” it had warned. “If you need to use it, do!” Our team encountered the tension repeatedly. Passing through a military checkpoint near Jerusalem, for example, their guide said, “Bombs are thrown here all the time. Just the other day, a homemade gasoline bomb exploded on this spot.”

As the Middle Eastern conflict continues, tourists and businesspeople are staying away from the area in droves. As a result, the local economy is plunging, making everyday life a battle for the average family. Nearly a third of children in Israel now live below the poverty line. Many elderly people are similarly vulnerable when poverty strikes. People simply can’t find enough work in the current climate, and the only real hope for many families is to be helped by an aid organisation.

“Poverty is hidden in this country,” an aid worker in Israel told us. “As a visitor, it might not be visible to you, but scratch beneath the surface and you will find real need.”

She should know. She liaises with organisations all over the country who are trying to supply life’s basics. “They can’t afford clothes, shoes, furniture, medical care. Some are even struggling to find food…” The outlets she supplies offer all these things.

Crossroads has helped too, and now supplies containers to the region several times a year.

Crossroads Foundation Hong Kong

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HELPING LIGHT THE DARKNESS

The BBC calls if ‘the worst refugee camp on earth’. A camp on the far-flung island of Lesvos, Greece, seen by...

read more ...

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The quantity was astonishing: 7,000 brand new toys, donated through our Global Hand service by a leading toy manufacturer. NGOs across...

read more ...

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It was the end of an era when Hong Kong’s beloved Excelsior shut down in early 2019. As their doors closed,...

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Helping equip Ukrainian maternity facility

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It was the middle of the night when Muhammad heard the terrifying sound of rebels at the door. “They said, ‘Join us or die’,” he remembers.

Syrian_refugee

The scars still fresh on Muhammad’s shoulder bear witness to the savage beating that came next. The rebels destroyed his home and Muhammad (right) knew there was nothing but fear and death left if his family stayed in their homeland.

Muhammad, his pregnant wife and his three young children joined the ranks of Syria’s 2.5 million displaced people. They escaped in the night across the border to Lebanon.

“Two children froze to death today.” – Crossroads’ partner, Lebanon, on the harsh winter faced by Syrian refugees.

The family found their way to one of Lebanon’s informal tented settlements, where Crossroads’ David Begbie met him and heard his story. “A lot of these people came with some money,” David said, “but they’ve been living off their savings and most of their money is now gone.”

Most bring skills and ingenuity with them across the border, but aren’t permitted to take formal jobs in the community.  Muhammad himself, desperate to find something to bring in a little income, now collects plastic from around the muddy streets in his makeshift cart (below) to sell, but the family has no idea how long they’ll be living in this bare, cold, temporary home.

Syrian_worker

It’s hard to remember, looking at images of these ‘tent cities’ stretching as far as the eye can see, that each tent houses a family with its own specific and individual stories of terror, distress and loss like Muhammad’s.

When Harrow International School Hong Kong asked Crossroads how they could help Syrian refugees, we seized the chance to partner. Harrow gave a generous donation of funding and when we looked to our different partners in the region, we found one who was planning a campaign to give warm winter clothes and toys to 5,000 children in the freezing refugee camps but were looking for funding!

Syria_Harrow_Students

Harrow students rallied for the cause, sending messages of support to Syrian refugee families.

Fast forward to the end of December, and distribution of ‘winterization’ packs (below) to precious refugee children had begun.

distrubution_syria

“I wish you could have been there to see the distribution!” said one of our contacts. “It was like drawing a smile on the children’s faces.”

Younger children received not just warm clothes but a soft plush toy in the distribution. For some of them it’s the only toy they now own.

“We want them to know they’re not forgotten,” said our partners.

Click here to see Crossroads’ photo essay from the camps, with more stories from families and the people helping them.

Crossroads Foundation Hong Kong

Give Now!

Donate to a shipment like this one.

DONATE MONEY

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Want to donate goods for a shipment like this one?

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HELPING LIGHT THE DARKNESS

The BBC calls if ‘the worst refugee camp on earth’. A camp on the far-flung island of Lesvos, Greece, seen by...

read more ...

7,000 brand new toys for Christmas

The quantity was astonishing: 7,000 brand new toys, donated through our Global Hand service by a leading toy manufacturer. NGOs across...

read more ...

Excelsior Hotel close equips HK social enterprise

It was the end of an era when Hong Kong’s beloved Excelsior shut down in early 2019. As their doors closed,...

read more ...

Helping equip Ukrainian maternity facility

"Finally, the repair of our maternity hospital is finished," wrote our colleagues in the Ukraine. "Your beds are in refurbished rooms...

read more ...