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Source: University of Otago

Rasha presenting at International Women’s Day in 2020.
University of Otago IT Projects Manager Rasha Abu Safieh recently gave a campus talk about her family’s incredible journey from Palestine to Dunedin.
Born in Texas, where her father was completing his PhD, she returned to Palestine as an 18-month-old. After attending the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) school in Gaza, she graduated first in her class from the School of Information Technology at the Islamic University of Gaza in 2006.
The Gaza Strip has two million people in an area about one-tenth the size of Dunedin, or roughly 15 times the population by area, living under a strict blockade for 15 years.
She says her family could go for days without power, making IT work very challenging. When she left Gaza, 95 per cent of the coastline was polluted so she never swam in the sea, despite a warm Mediterranean climate.
Three-quarters of the residents live in poverty, and the unemployment rate is 46 per cent, but for female IT workers unemployment is a staggering 92 per cent.
Mrs Safieh decided that she would use technology to change the narrative. After working five years for an International Non-Governmental Organisation (INGO) and a private university in Gaza, she co-founded the Social Enterprise in Gaza called GGateway in 2012.
GGateway was hosted under the UNRWA umbrella from 2013-2015 and was spun-off as a standalone enterprise in 2016.
From 2017-2018 GGateway created more than 150 long-term jobs and trained more than 4,000 IT graduates. Due to its success, the World Bank funded it $US3 million to expand as a regional outsourcing hub in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
For making such a major change in so many lives, in 2018 she was named by Time magazine as a “Next Generation Leader”.
Rasha and her family at Cairo Airport. From left: Mohammed, Jamal, Haya, Sama and Rasha
In August 2018 Mrs Safieh applied for a Sir Edmund Hillary Fellowship in New Zealand. After a rigorous interviewing process, she jumped out of her bed at 5am one December morning and woke up her family to let them know that she had been accepted. From responding to a Facebook notice about the fellowship on the other side of the world, her family now had a life-changing decision to relocate to New Zealand.
The three-year followship began after her welcome weekend. It included a three-year working visa called the Global Impact Visa (GIV). After her welcoming week experience in March 2019, she asked herself, how to make it back to New Zealand.
“I made a to-do list and knew I needed at least six months to coordinate our return.”
In November 2019 air strikes in Gaza delayed their initial departure and a normal eight-hour car journey from Gaza to Cairo (Egypt) took 24 hours, due to the number of military checkpoints that they had to cross.
She arrived in New Zealand in late 2019 with her husband Mohammed and their three children Haya (11), Sama (9), and Jamal (2), and by March 2020 was in lockdown, which she says was “just like being at home”.
A family trip to Queenstoen
She spent most of 2020 in Dunedin still co-directing her enterprise overseas, alongside networking, building connections, and developed a team made up of herself, Dr Marissa Kaloga from the University’s Department of Social and Community Work and Rachel Butler who is the Managing Director of Start-Up Dunedin, to study the “Social Network Analysis for the entrepreneurial support organizations”, a project that is researching inclusive entrepreneurship by STARlab (Systems Transformation Action Research LAB).
More about their project
She has many insights from her journey and says choosing the right people to work with is vital. “If you have the right people around the table, you reach the right decisions.
“I am a passionate lifelong learner. If I need to jump out of bed in the middle of the night to take a course, I will do it.” Perhaps this helps explain how she was able to complete her Harvard Diploma in Executive Business Management while taking care of two children and running an enterprise under highly complicated conditions in Gaza in 2016.
“Find the joy in what you are doing, and it will become easier. It’s okay to fail, it’s a journey as long as you learn along the way from your mistakes.”
In terms of helping new immigrants to become established in Dunedin, she says they need to be provided with the right connections. “They need to find a balanced approach to bring what they have to their new home, which has to accept them as they are to get the best for the community.”
Mrs Safieh has spent over 18 months working for the ITS group at the University.
This month STARlab won the academic initiative of the year award at the Gen NZ Entrepreneur Ecosystem Awards.
Gen NZ Entrepreneur Ecosystem Awards 2022
– Kōrero by Kerry Dohig, Communications Adviser (IT Projects)