Empowering Palestinian Women, one stitch at a time

BEIT SAHOUR — There are a few words that can be used to describe Najla Azar : petite, open and inviting, just like her home in Beit Sahour, the largely Christian town outside of the West Bank.

all things sacred to her are displayed on her living room walls. A black and
white photo of she and her husband, who is also her first cousin, on their
wedding day are proudly displayed by the entrance. Framed pictures of her four
children and their spouses, all of whom are Orthodox Christians, are also
showcased. On her couch sits two needles with black thread wrapped around it.
When the project is completed, it  be an
intricately embroidered shawl that will join a vibrant collection of Azar’s
other work including dresses, wallets, scarfs and bookmarks. These items, once
pinned to the wall, are ready to be sold to customers around the world, a
continuation of a lengthy journey.

Azar has been using her home as a workspace
for nearly 50 years. As a seasoned craftswoman, she founded a business called “
Cross Stitch 4 Palestine,” a website that sells embroidered products both
locally and overseas. Her mission, however, is not just to sell handmade
crafts, it’s to encourage women empowerment between the Muslim and Christian
communities. Azar expanded her business by allowing women from Bethlehem, Gaza
and Hebron to help her stitch products. The opportunity allows for the ladies
to support themselves and their families whom many are responsible for.

“I wanted to help support these women,” said Azar, a 71-year old Christian woman whose income supports herself and her husband who is unemployed.

According to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs,  the Gaza unemployment rate is 44 percent with the leading cause due to disability.” The unemployment rate is somewhat higher in the West Bank cities like Bethlehem and Hebron, but making a living is still a considerable challenge.

Although Azar had
never lived in a refugee camp, she had visited two times before which sparked
her interest in helping.

 “ A lot of these women are either enrolled in
school and are responsible for the costs or they have to take care of their
husbands who may be sickly,” Azar said. “ That’s why it’s important for us to
make sales.”

The craftswoman
learned the art of embroidery at the age of 13. While she was still in school,
learning how to stitch was a mandatory for young women.

In 1977, at the age
of 25, Azar traveled to Jerusalem for the first time. She had been hired to
work in the dining room at the Church of St. Andrew’s, a Scottish Church.
There, she befriended Yael, a Jewish Orthodox woman who would later become her
business partner for Cross Stitch 4 Palestine.

During the Second
Intifada, Azar was no longer able to work at the Scottish Church and had to
figure out a way to help support her young family. Since mobility was limited,
Azar decided to return to embroidery and create her own business. During the
day, she would invite women from Bethlehem and Hebron to come to her house so
she could teach them how to stitch.

“These ladies were clever,” said Azar. “ They learned very quickly,”

She taught them how
to do the cross stitch.

Each town has its own
distinct knitting style. In Beit Sahour, the signature pattern is the
cross-stitch which is a series of “ X” or cross shaped patterns. Despite the
appearance, the cross-stitch does not have a religious tie to it. However,
items that have a cross-stitch pattern are popular among the Eastern Orthodox
and Catholic communities, particularly during Christmas and Easter.

The cross-stitch is sold to local churches, including her own, First Baptist Church in Jerusalem.

“Life is much easier now,” said Azar. She now has access to go to and from Jerusalem with a church permit. This also allows her to pick up the material necessary to create the embroidered goods and transports it to the women who work for her.

“My hope is that people will continue to support us so that I can continue to support the ladies,” said Azar. “My hope it that they will be able to lead a life of peace.”