Sometimes the prosaic can be breathtaking. I am standing in the new showroom of a company that manufactures plumbing supplies in Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. Mansour Izgayer, one of three brothers who own the factory, is giving me a tour of his business and his life. He and his brothers were living in the U.S. when peace seemed to break out in the Middle East after the 1993 Oslo accords. They decided to return home, as did many other members of the Palestinian diaspora. They built their company, Royal Industries & Trading, persistently, even after the prospects for peace shattered in the second intifadeh and it became near impossible to do business in the midst of a war zone, near impossible to move their products through Israeli checkpoints. It still isn't very easy, but the past few years have been much better. A new Palestinian government quietly began to restore order and emphasize economic growth. Israel removed many, but not all, checkpoints. Royal now has 360 employees, new product lines fireplaces, welcome mats and a new wing, complete with an assembly hall. It has an on-site mosque and a cafeteria. The Izgayer brothers' story is at the heart of the new optimism and old frustrations that mark the West Bank territory of Palestine.
A young woman enters the showroom, walking confidently toward us and smiling. "Very nice to meet you," she says. "I'm new here." She does not shake my hand; she is religious, dressed in a hijab and bulky overcoat. Her name is Samiya abu-Rayyan, and she is a bit of a miracle as well a graduate of a new program, Education for Employment (EFE), that trains young Palestinians in how to get and keep jobs. She is a graduate of Hebron University, but she was entirely unprepared for the workplace. "I had many interviews, but I didn't know how to introduce myself," she says. EFE taught her everything from how to fill out a job application to how to deal with an angry boss and how to look someone in the eye and smile, even though that ran counter to the tradition in which she was raised. She learned some business English and marketing as well. After several months of training, she interviewed with a bank and the plumbing company and received offers from both. She chose Royal because the Izgayer brothers offered a religiously conservative working environment and because of the company mosque.
And here is another odd, but inspiring, thing: Samiya would not have her new skills if it were not for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. On that day, a Jewish American real estate magnate named Ronald Bruder was desperately searching for his daughter, who worked in downtown New York City, near ground zero. His daughter turned up safe, but the shock and panic stirred him. "I started reading and thinking about the Middle East," Bruder told me recently. "And what I came to was this: if people were gainfully employed, maybe they wouldn't be so angry at us." Bruder began to travel the region, asking questions. "It was the Minister of Education in Jordan who told me, 'If you really want to help, what we need is soft skills.' I didn't know what soft skills were," Bruder said. "Now they're my life." In fact, they are the sort of skills that Samiya abu-Rayyan has acquired.
Bruder started EFE's first program in Jordan in 2006, but he quickly expanded to Morocco, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, plus Gaza and the West Bank. EFE's graduates number only in the dozens in the West Bank, but more classes are about to begin in Hebron and Ramallah. "We can expand pretty rapidly," he said, "if there are jobs for the people we graduate."