From Puerto Rico to Palestine
I met my husband in Puerto Rico. I had no idea what Palestine was. As a Christian, I had an idea of biblical Israel and Palestine, but when I met my Palestinian husband he began telling me about the conflict, and how things were here. Before then, I didn’t even know what kind of weather existed here.
I quickly learned that Palestinians have a strong bond to their land, as did my husband. He had told me that he wouldn’t mind living in the U.S. for a while, but he would eventually want to move back to Palestine.
So in 1997, I moved to Surda in Ramallah with my husband. Today I speak Spanish, English, and Arabic very well. I have a little bit of an accent in Arabic; I make grammatical mistakes here and there. But when I came here, I only knew two words: “thank you” and “water.”
Back then, in 1997, it was all right, but I had to get used to how the houses were made of stone, which felt weird to me, since in the U.S. wood or regular concrete was used to build homes. The people were nice here, and as back in Puerto Rico, family was important.
I had a hard time with the food, however, because there was a lack of fruits and vegetables. Compared to Puerto Rico, there is not much variety here.
Life has changed a lot here since 1997. When we arrived, my husband thought the place would be as he had last seen it back in 1987, and I used to tell him, “Things change.” I told him that in another 20 years, things will change again.
In 1997, the economy was better: things were cheaper, although there were fewer options. The political situation has also changed. Actually, even the weather has changed—we haven’t had that much rain in the past few years. Some people say that it’s from God – he does that to us.
I feel at home in Palestine. I have a lot in common with the people here. I’ve been able to relate to them, and I’ve created a life of my own here.
Since I moved here, I still haven’t been given a Palestinian ID. That means that if I ever decided to move to Puerto Rico, I wouldn’t be able to come back to Palestine. I haven’t considered going back even though I’m a widow now. And of course it would be too expensive to do so.
If I get an ID in the future, I would at least like to visit my mother’s grave, and also to visit what is left of my family there, since many of my brothers and sisters live elsewhere. So I’m relatively okay with my situation.
I have been baking for many years. I learned to bake, when I was about 12-13 years old. My sister, who passed away, was a hair stylist, but she was talented in so many artistic ways: makeup, styling in general, and baking cakes. Everything she did was amazing. I recall how she invited women home to bake, and I helped her when I came back from school. That is how I learned the basics.
I like food: eating it, baking it, making it. Every time I read a recipe, I try to add my own touch. Today I can go a week without cooking normal food, but I have to bake something. It’s soothing and relaxing, unless you have four children to worry about, but in general I feel relaxed when I bake. If I don’t bake for a while, I feel like I’m lost, like something’s missing.
People would always tell me, “You should do something with your baking.” My husband was 16 years older than me, so I figured that I should begin working for myself, just in case. Last year, right before my husband passed away, I created my baking business, “Rainbow Bites.”
After my husband passed away, I was really stuck financially. The land that we live on is our property, but it doesn’t give you money in your pocket. My husband had also left some unpaid debt.
Before Rainbow Bites ever began, my husband didn’t want my daughters to work. He encouraged them to study, but discouraged them from working in secretarial positions or in restaurants. He didn’t like this. So I told him that I would give this a try, and my daughters would be able to help me. Today they help me, and even my youngest son helps.
I launched a Facebook page in December 2014, and I tried to promote it as much as possible by going to bazaars and schools, and telling many people about it. Right now the income from the sales is not enough to support my family, but I have faith that in two years it will be a bigger business and will help me more financially.
I make a lot of different cakes, sugar cookies decorated for all sorts of occasions, sponge cakes, and regular “homemade cakes” as they call them here. It’s actually these homemade cakes that created a name for me. I also bake wedding cakes and special dietary cakes, like gluten free. I have a big variety.
A while ago, my daughter and I took a class at Kitchen Club, which is the first culinary school in Palestine. We had the opportunity to participate in a ten-day course there, and they taught us the basics of baking. The teacher there even helped me a lot with ideas for Rainbow Bites.
In the past, you wouldn’t find too many people ordering cakes for birthdays or themed parties. Palestinians have been introduced to many Western and European customs, such as bridal showers. You wouldn’t hear about those things here before.
I participated in a bazaar in Birzeit a while ago, and also one in Jerusalem, but Rainbow Bites was represented by my daughter, and not by me, because I couldn’t get a permit due to the fact that I still haven’t been granted a Palestinian ID since 1997.
Registration for the bazaar in Jerusalem was free, which was great because usually at bazaars you have to pay a fee. However, it wasn’t actually entirely for free, because getting there cost money. I had to get a magnetic strip card for my daughter. Palestinians have the option of getting this card, which is like a free pass. When you have the card, it’s valid for up to three years, and it is much easier to get permits. You’re hardly ever denied a permit with that card, although I am sure there are still background checks. The card costs 150 shekels, and the permit costs 12 shekels. In this case, the permit was paid for by the U.S. Consulate, who had arranged the bazaar.
I was so scared for my daughter to go there alone especially because of the recent events. She was a little bit scared too, but she went with her friend who had also obtained a permit.
I don’t know too many women who run their own businesses, so I got in touch with some of the women from the bazaar in Birzeit. All of this is very new to me, but I try to reach out to other women entrepreneurs, and I am applying to different free courses that help people promote their businesses. All of these courses are provided by NGOs in the area.
I see many women taking control of their businesses for different reasons. In my case, it came about because of the passing of my husband. In other cases, women have to take over the businesses of their sons, who may have died due to consequences of the occupation.
There are many NGOs that are trying to train young women to set up their own businesses. Ten years ago you wouldn’t find too many of these opportunities. There still aren't enough, and the major reason for this is the lack of exposure. Many agencies help, but they are not well promoted. For example, it was by chance that I met someone who knew about Kitchen Club.
Things have changed. Nowadays, girls are more educated. More women go to college, whereas boys have to stay at home and work to generate an income for the household. I think that girls are more intellectually prepared to do something of their own. A 23-year-old boy who didn’t finish college and works to support his family, will find fewer job opportunities based on his lack of education, whereas a girl can get married and keep studying after her marriage, ultimately giving her some form of title. This is important, because if her husband dies, she can create something for herself because of her diploma.
As a girl or woman, you can easily sew in your home, or take up another form of handicraft. Us, girls, we work with our hands – we create things from the work of our hands.
A friend of mine who writes for a magazine, came to visit me in 2010. She had just spent some time in Jerusalem with Israelis. Before she came to visit me, another friend of mine said to me, “How come you let this friend of yours come here when she sits with Israelis?” This friend viewed all Israelis only in the light of the occupation. However, I feel like a minority because I know that there are good Israelis.
The biggest challenge for me is that I am unable to get a permit because of my lack of a Palestinian ID. The occupation would still exist here, and I would still have to be careful when moving around, but at least I could move around a little. I could go to Nablus and other places.
The occupation also makes it difficult for me to get all the ingredients and equipment that I need for Rainbow Bites, such as the right pans to make fondant or cream. Here you only have one or two stores that are dedicated to baking supplies. When you order items from outside Palestine, it takes more than two months to arrive, and you have to pay a customs fee, even if it’s worthless. Furthermore, if I don’t manage to pay the customs fee, they keep my items at the port and charge a holding fee. So I actually pay twice for what it’s worth, with the customs fee and the stay at the port. I wish I had the option to go online and buy all of my equipment from Alibaba in China.
If there was no occupation, I would definitely have more opportunities to promote and to sell my baking goods, and to bring equipment and ingredients from outside. Sometimes we have to stop bringing a particular ingredient because of these issues, and then I have to start all over again and to look for another brand.
All in all, I just wish that the Israelis could let us be and not interfere with our lives, as they do.