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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Extending the Olive Branch

Extending the olive branch

By Clark Fredricksen
May 6, 2008

Photo by Gary Fields.

A farmer from Jayyous is prevented to pass through the Wall to his land by an Israeli soldier.

Photo by Gary Fields.

An Israeli soldier hands back a permit to a Jayyous woman after checking it during the olive harvest.

Photo by Gary Fields.

Farmers from Jayyous wait to pass through the gate in the Wall to access their land.

Photo by Gary Fields.

Tawfiq Hasan Salim of Jayyous after Israeli settlers from Zufim uprooted 300 of his olive trees.

In the summer of 2007, senior Mark Balmforth was on a study abroad visit to the West Bank with several students when he stopped at a tiny village called Jayyous.

It was getting late. The roads were closing soon. But his host, Abdul-Latif Khaled, a local farmer and former professor of hydrology at a nearby university, wouldn’t let them leave without eating first.

With a twinkle in his eye — along with a closely cropped haircut and a trimmed mustache — Khaled exuded an enthusiasm and boisterousness that is often unseen in pictures of the conflict-ridden West Bank. But this was different. It was dinnertime. And in Palestine, that means showing guests a good time.

The group sat on the patio next to Khaled’s simple stucco house, overlooking valleys below filled with olive groves. Orange, red and yellow flowers decorated the patio, and his children played alongside the group of students as they ate.

Dinner was as home-cooked as they come. A soufflé-style dish filled with eggs, tomatoes and summer sausage, while mozzarella cheese donned the center of the white plastic table. It looked like the kind of thing mothers cook for their children when they come home for spring break, except for the giant glass bowl of olive oil off to the side.

“Do you want some?” Khaled asked the students, holding the bowl of homemade oil. They obliged, and he poured — dumping endless amounts of the viscous green liquid onto their plates.

But, except for olive oil, the people of Jayyous don’t really have an endless supply of anything. Instead, they have shortages.

The village was recently split in half by the West Bank security wall, a fence erected by Israelis to prevent sectarian violence. Though the barrier has improved safety in the region, it has devastated Palestinian border towns that rely on resources that are now blocked by secured checkpoints and guarded gates.

In Jayyous, some 70 percent of farmers have fields on the opposite side of the wall, but only a small number have security clearance to access them, Balmforth said.

Water access is another issue. With the wall cutting directly through farmland, many fields no longer have access to irrigation. Instead of crops, many fields are now filled with weeds.

Khaled is one of the lucky ones. He and some farmers can still access their fields. And for those growing olive trees — a crop that doesn’t typically require heavy watering — it’s still possible to get by. But for others, putting food on the table is becoming increasingly difficult.

“It was really depressing,” Balmforth said. “Guys my age were sitting outside, drinking tea and playing board games. Most people have taken second or third jobs to make ends meet. There’s just very little economic opportunity for them.”

But when he came back to Seattle, Balmforth, along with UW graduate and friend Karanvir Singh decided to do something about it.

“We thought, what can we do to help these people?” Balmforth said. “We were sitting in a cafĂ© and we realized that we could bring their olive oil … to Seattle, sell it and then give the profits back to the people who were producing.”

After encouragement from professors, Balmforth applied for and received a grant from the Mary Gates Foundation to help the village. And after getting the go-ahead from Khaled, they created Friends of Jayyous, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for the Palestinian farmers through importing and selling their olive oil.

But the process wasn’t easy. Simply getting the olive oil to Seattle required Khaled to visit more than a dozen Palestinian and Israeli agencies about acquiring exporting licenses, not to mention simply learning how to bottle and label the product for the first time.

“The logistics were something that we didn’t have any experience dealing with,” Singh said.“At first we had problems with shipping. It turned out that the whole thing almost fell through. The business side was part of the puzzle, but the entire process itself was one giant hurdle.”

But after months of overcoming hurdles, Friends of Jayyous finally received its first shipment of 132 bottles of olive oil from the Palestinian village.

“I am not a business man and I didn’t know the way to do any part of the process,” Khaled said in an e-mail. “Everything was unknown for Mark and I. But we wanted to prove that this could happen. We faced many difficulties — but we did it.”

“It is a success for all our friends in Seattle who supported the idea and who prove that we can cross the borders and reach other.”

But the process wasn’t cheap. Each bottle of olive oil is $25, the majority of which will pay for bottling, labeling and shipping costs. In the end, only $7 from each bottle will go to the farmers. Still, Khaled said that economics isn’t the only part of the payoff.

“The social impact is great,” Khaled said. “Farmers feel happy that it’s possible to cross the borders of the world with their olive oil. The economic impact is small because the quantity is too small. However, if we can build on this model and export larger quantities in the future, then we would be talking about a real economic impact.”

The goal now, he and others said, is turning the project into a sustainable business.

“Now we’re trying to make sure that the people [in Palestine] can keep it going,” said Theron Stevenson, international programs director for Comparative History of Ideas and an adviser to the project. “It would be ideal if someone in Jayyous took it on as their full-time project. But we’ll be working on it regardless.”

The project, however, isn’t limited to just Seattleites or farmers in Palestine. Gary Fields, a professor at the University of California San Diego who has been to Jayyous five times, has also stepped on board.

“There’s also a large Palestinian community in San Diego,” Fields said. “And we would love to expand the project here.”

Part of the process, he said, would be increasing awareness of the social and political issues involved with the project.

“Jayyous is one of the worst affected by the [Gaza] wall,” he said. “It literally goes right through [the farmers’] land. Some people are suffering pretty badly. Their standard of living has plummeted significantly. It’s a precarious situation there.”

For Balmforth, however, Friends of Jayyous isn’t about politics. It’s about helping his friends. And the best way to help, he said, is through buying their olive oil.

“The political message of it doesn’t really occur to us,” Balmforth said. “The process creates progress, peace and common understanding. It’s taking a human stance and listening to people who haven’t been listened to before and understanding how we can help.”

“At the end of the day it’s not all about using it for a salad. Each bottle of olive oil is a little part of Jayyous. You’re buying a part of their story.”

And for the people of the village, the chance to tell that story is a step toward progress.

“People think everything that comes from Palestine must be politicized, because the general atmosphere is like that,” Khaled said. “But we are simply trying to help the poor families and farmers. When I review the past six months — how we started and what we did — I believe nothing is impossible. If you make a clear humanitarian goal — and you have the courage— then you will succeed.”


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