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Palestine: Earning A Living With Dignity
01 November 2012

The two great historical sites of the Christian world stand only a few miles apart. The site of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem is located a few miles from the place of his death and resurrection in Jerusalem. Two churches marked these sites, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Jerusalem. For the first time in 2000 years, the road between the two was closed since 2002.
Surrounded by rocky hills, Bethlehem is one of the most sacred places for Christian, honored as the birthplace of both King David and Jesus. The city is just five miles south of Jerusalem. This route has been called the existential link between the birth and death of Jesus Christ. Now the massive gray-concrete line of the separation wall has severed this spiritual line, as well cutting off modern-day Bethlehem from Jerusalem. While many Palestinians have difficulties crossing the border to Israel, tourists are free to come and go with only a brief stop at a checkpoint. The wall has created immense economic problems for the people of Bethlehem, since they can no longer travel freely to work.  The artisans of Bethlehem, who continue the centuries-old traditions of their families, are especially affected.

                                                                                                            Photo: BFTA

Located down some narrow winding road steps from the Church of the Nativity, are the offices of Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans (BFTA).  Founded in 2009 and staffed entirely by local and international volunteers, BFTA is dedicated to building an organization that assists development and marketing of local products produced by the many talented craftsmen and women from the Holy Land. It is a not-for-profit Palestinian NGO that works with the handicraft sector, particularly local independent artisans, specializing in olive wood carvings, embroidery, olive oil soap, recycled glass, handmade paper and handmade silver.  Today BFTA works with more than 125 workshops, three special needs organizations, and women’s organizations and cooperatives.  The goal is to develop the handicraft economy in and around Bethlehem by providing support services to local artisans, all of whom are marginalized from uniquely challenging circumstances related to the politics affecting local tourism, and compounded by obstacles such as exploitative middlemen, language barriers, and increasing competition from Chinese manufacturers. Combined, these obstacles prevent artisans from achieving fair prices for their work in both the domestic and international markets. 

We conducted our own study. Our own market research showed that the international customers are more interested in original, high-quality, artistic goods that are handmade from the Holy Land. To tap this potential market, we wanted a sustainable model by following the Fair Trade principles. Our work with artisans are in accordance with the tenets of Fair Trade, so we can create sustainable livelihoods for the artisans that could last for generations.

In addition to marketing and business support, BFTA also works with artisans, individually and in groups, to develop capacity building strategies and to develop ideas for business growth, diversification, good working practices, and responding to changing market demands. BFTA believes that by developing the economic security of the artisans, we also assist their families and the wider community in a way that is sustainable over the long term.  Moreover, the artistic sector is inclusive and available to all of Palestinian society, as is evident by the growing number of female and refugee artisans. All their work is underpinned by an absolute commitment to Fair Trade principles.

                                                                                                             Photo: BFTA

BFTA also raises funds for a variety of projects that directly benefit the artisans. Profits made by BFTA are used to provide workshops that include training in vocations, computers, marketing, and English. During these workshops, which are offered throughout the West Bank, participants are also instructed on Fair Trade practices and BFTA’s Fair Trade initiatives.

The development of these skills and knowledge is fundamental to ensuring the growth and success of the artisan community. As well as training, BFTA builds relationships between international organizations and the artisans, and is committed to creating a sustainable future for the Bethlehem community.

Unique story of one of BFTA’s beneficiaries:
Mervet Jackaman is an extremely brave and hard-working woman. After studying at Dar Al-Nadwa, she became a master in the craft of recycled glass.  She opened a small business called “Palglass.” Recognizing that she needed to develop her business skills, enrolled on courses in enterprise management and entrepreneurship, where she learned pricing, packaging and many other beneficial skills.  Mervet is very talented. She is now supplying beautiful glass products to customers who requested innovative and modern range of colors and new designs. She creates angels, crosses, candle holders, jewelry boxes, and nativity sets, which have all been very popular.

Adversity has not deterred this exceptional artisan. After her husband lost his job as a construction worker, after undergoing open-heart surgery, she became the bread winner of the family. She is supporting her husband, three sons and a daughter. Her children are now studying at a local university.  Mervet’s recycled glass is extremely special. She also exemplifies the resilient characteristics of the many artisans within the Palestinian Territories that BFTA supports.

To learn more of the BFTA’s work, visit website

By Suzan Sahori
Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans

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