The Palestine community that helps aspiring techies start a career with Google, Meta

Published: Updated:
Enable Read mode
100% Font Size

In an environment where violence and instability haunt any prospect of a career, a Palestine-launched start-up called Manara, which translates to “lighthouse” in English, has made it its mission to help aspiring techies attain a future where peace, happiness, and harmony are a norm.

“We’ve built a global community of engineers who jump in at just the right moments in a participant’s journey to offer an hour of mentorship,” Laila Abudahi, co-founder of Manara, explained to Al Arabiya English.

Manara founders Laila Abudahi and Iliana Montauk. (Supplied)
Manara founders Laila Abudahi and Iliana Montauk. (Supplied)

For the latest headlines, follow our Google News channel online or via the app.

Abudahi hopes to “bridge the gap” between the companies and talent, with a focus on women in tech.

“The talent pipeline is the biggest challenge facing the tech industry,” said Abudahi, adding that the diversity of talent “continues to gain priority” across the industry.

“It is no secret that tech has had a long-standing diversity and inclusion problem,” a Harvard Business Review report published in 2020 stated, calling it “arguably a root cause of many larger issues that plague tech” – including but not limited to justice and fairness.

Some areas of concern pointed out by the report are “unjust” facial recognition and a predominantly male trade that causes intrinsic biases against women across services and products provided by the tech industry.

In contrast, a report by the Arab Gulf States Institution in Washington published 2018 stated that women in the Middle East represent 40 percent of university students specializing in computer science and IT.

According to data provided by Abudahi, 83 percent of women computer science graduates in Palestine are unemployed, with 52 percent of all computer graduates being women.

Manara seeks to use these favorable numbers to make an impact.

‘Ambitions are limited, restricted’

“In Palestine… our vision and ambitions are limited and restricted - we live in a closed world,” Germany-based Palestinian Google software engineer Samah Abu Shammah said in an account to Al Arabiya English.

Shammah grew up in Salfit, West Bank, a few hundred meters from the Israeli-occupied city of Ariel.

Just like in large parts of the contested West Bank, Shammah’s hometown of Salfit has seen and continues to see incursions by the Israeli authorities including demolition orders and violence, according to media reports by the WAFA news agency.

However, Manara helped Shammah escape this cycle and start her career.

Pictured is Manara candidate Samah Abu Shamma who now works in Google, Munich. (Supplied)
Pictured is Manara candidate Samah Abu Shamma who now works in Google, Munich. (Supplied)

Manara’s services are available for those who graduate with software engineering and computer science degrees with zero to eight years of work experience. It provides technical skills, mentorship and career advice, soft skills including English practice and communication, and support in job placement.

This helps candidates receive a series of benefits including access and best practices that can help them get kickstart their careers and elevate their lifestyle outside Palestine.

“Overall the community and people and mentors were super helpful, cooperative, and inspiring, Shammah said. “The tips, the mock interviews & mentoring sessions were helping everyone…”

Arranging for mentorship from industry leaders and using connections in global tech giants, Manara helped Shammah and others like her find a footing in some of the most desired software engineering jobs.

Another Manara success story, Shahed Amer, was circumstantially compelled to move back to a village near Tulkarem in Palestine after growing up in the neighboring safe haven, the UAE.

While Amer describes a somewhat idyllic life with family in the Palestinian village in an account to Al Arabiya English, her educational and career-related conditions were oftentimes overcast with danger and instability.

Pictured is Manara candidate Shahed Amer who now works with Meta, London. (Supplied)
Pictured is Manara candidate Shahed Amer who now works with Meta, London. (Supplied)

The 22-year-old studied at the Palestinian Technical University.

“This university is very close to the border…Whenever anything is happening in Palestine it is immediately affected,” she explained.

“Many times, there was tear gas thrown into the classes while the students were inside and we’d have to evacuate,” she said.

Palestinian students watch as Israeli soldiers stand guard at Palestine Technical University, in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank April 26, 2018. (File photo: Reuters)
Palestinian students watch as Israeli soldiers stand guard at Palestine Technical University, in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank April 26, 2018. (File photo: Reuters)

It is in stark contrast to her current circumstances as a software engineer for Meta in their London office.

“At the beginning it was weird for me not to find that many Arabs, I’m so used to being surrounded by Arabs my whole life.

“I was really happy to find out they had Maamoul during Eid, it was an amazing surprise,” she said, intrigued by the simple butter-cookie popular in the Arab world, and usually filled with dates and other dry fruits – a sign of inclusivity and a reminder of her home.

She credits Manara with giving her a “vision” towards building a career and helping her attain her “dream job.”

“What Manara brought to Palestine is to make people believe that they can actually get jobs at Meta and Google. Before 3 years, no one in Palestine would believe that anyone can ever get jobs in big tech companies…,” she said in her account.

Empowering Arab women and men

While a large part of Manara’s focus lies in empowering Arab women and providing an eye-opener to the wider possibilities of life abroad, the start-up also welcomes eligible males within their region of operation.

Mohammed Shoman, a Palestinian by birth, described his life as cumbersome – “living in an occupied land.”

“Things like the checkpoints make me late every single morning and evening,” he said in an account to Al Arabiya English, as he described life in the contested territory.

The 25-year-old now works in the UAE-based e-commerce operation, noon, as a software engineer.

Manara candidate Mohammad Shoman who now works with e-commerce platform noon in Dubai, UAE. (Supplied)
Manara candidate Mohammad Shoman who now works with e-commerce platform noon in Dubai, UAE. (Supplied)

“If Manara was not there, I don’t know where I would have been,” he said, a common thread among all the candidates Al Arabiya English heard from.

Despite being given similar opportunities as members from the community, Shoman chose to live and work in the UAE.

“For someone who grew up in Palestine, which is an Arab-Islamic country - I really loved this environment and cultural aspect of it. In Dubai you can find the same, and even any culture you are looking for because it’s so diverse.”

“This is hard to find in any of the European countries,” he said.

Shammah, who now works in Google, has a different perspective.

She felt it was important to “increase diversity, let the people know that Palestinians, Muslims, middle easterns [sic] can do more.”

“We’re just like any other person, with skills and ambitions and working hard,” she remarked.

“The more I see people like me there, the more I believe I can do it too. That’s why representation is important,” she concluded.

Raising awareness

A key part of the group’s objectives lies in raising awareness.

To this point, Shamah said: “All the Manara graduates that were placed outside, have much more experience now after going outside Palestine and are aware of the demands for the global standards - they have come back to share their knowledge in Palestine and it’s helping the next generation.”

All this was made possible in part by Manara co-founder Abudahi, who shared with Al Arabiya English, her upbringing in a refugee camp in Rafah city, the southern-most town in the Gaza Strip bordering Egypt.

A view of the neighborhood where Laila Abudahi was raised as a child in Palestine's Rafah city. (Supplied)
A view of the neighborhood where Laila Abudahi was raised as a child in Palestine's Rafah city. (Supplied)

“My grandma was the first entrepreneur in the family, she bought a house in the refugee camp and raised three cows selling milk - she was the first person running a business in the refugee camp,” she recalled.

Raised in the camp, Abudahi did not have an easy upbringing.

“I grew up on food stamps from UNRWA [The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the near east], went to UNRWA schools and UNRWA clinics,” she clarified.

Abudahi did not let her circumstances affect her education, however.

Her commitment to maintaining distinctive scores through a bachelor’s degree in Gaza helped earn a Fullbright scholarship for her master’s degree in electrical, electronics, and communication engineering at the University of Washington.

However, the move came at the expense of a failed startup that intended to develop educational games using a sensor-based gaming accessory called Xbox Kinect.

Manara, however, does not have the markings of collapse as did her first start-up.

The “edtech start-up” raised $3 million in pre-seed funding from Silicon Valley investors earlier in May 2021 to further its “cohort-based learning” aim, according to a statement released by the company.

The funding round was led by Stripe starting in 2021 and includes the founder of LinkedIn Reid Hoffman, founder of Y Combinator Paul Graham, founder of Lean Startup Eric Ries, and the Founder and CEO of Careem Mudassir Sheikha.

“Communities can be extremely powerful if you are smart about how to curate and connect them - the trick is knowing when one hour of a Google engineer’s time has the highest leverage,” said Iliana Montauk, co-founder and CEO of Manara in the statement.

“We received more appetite from investors than we could accommodate,” Montauk claimed.

As with many start-ups, Manara was not an easy company to raise.

“One of the biggest challenges we faced was switching the mindset for talent in Gaza. The candidates were talented and highly qualified but did not believe in themselves, especially women who were not confident enough to even apply,” co-founder Abudahi said.

“It required hours and hours of mentorship per potential candidate until the stage of applying - because simply no solution existed like that and getting a job at Google seemed completely out of reach,” she added.

A Manara community meeting in Palestine. (Supplied)
A Manara community meeting in Palestine. (Supplied)

The second biggest challenge was “rebranding the Middle East” as a source for tech talents versus what the region is “typically associated with like wars, displacement,” Abudahi concluded.

With good intentions guiding Manara, the company is able to reinvest in its goals by claiming 10 percent of every successfully-placed candidates’ salary for two years, with an additional undisclosed amount conferred when the companies hire a Manara-upskilled engineer as recruiting fee.

They also support candidates undertaking remote-work opportunities, a path many have chosen under Manara’s program.

The twice-a-year program is open to anyone in MENA with a degree in computer science or software engineering, and fluent in English.

The impact has been far-reaching for candidates, while worrisome for some local businesses who remain concerned about increasing salaries or losing local talent to firms abroad, Manara’s team said when asked about the reception it received from the region.

The community said it may also consider expanding its offering outside computer science as it grows.

A Manara community meeting in Palestine. (Supplied)
A Manara community meeting in Palestine. (Supplied)

Read more:

Israeli-Palestinian “flag war” brews as violence flares

Israeli soldiers kill two Palestinians in West Bank, Palestinian health ministry says

Phone app allows Gaza women to report domestic abuse anonymously

Top Content Trending