Written By: Lateshia Beachum, Photo Taken By: Jennifer Swanson
Myasar Yseen’s a full-time housewife and mother.
And olive farmer. And soap-maker. And community leader.
Yseen does what’s typical of a Palestinian housewife with children: She assigns one of her younger daughters to clean grape leaves that will be stuffed with rice, she cleans olives from the family farm to serve guests, and she makes sure to sweep the front porch of her house.
But by 9:30 a.m. on most days in the West Bank town of Asira, she’s done much more: She’s already fed the family’s 14 goats and four cows in their backyard barn. She’s done some milking and made cheese and a batch of olive oil soap.
Yseen, 56, is a warm-natured mother of eight who has been married for 32 years — and so much more.
She is among the 21.5 percent of women who work in the agricultural sect of the West Bank, according to Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) 2013 data. She is also among the 17.4 percent of women who participate in the workforce, which the UN says is much lower than the rest of the Arab world, where the number of women in the labor force is usually around a quarter of the population.
Yseen is also in an even smaller class.
Eleven percent of women in agriculture are self-employed, compared to nearly 20 percent of men in agriculture.
Although the numbers of women in the agriculture business might be as modest as Yseen’s backyard farm, she’s found a way to support her family with that and her at-home businesses.
Yseen’s agriculture business, especially olive oil, has blossomed. Unlike many other farmers, she’s able to live off what she earns from her extra virgin oil. Since the beginning of this year through June, she had earned 30,000 shekels, which totals almost $8,000. That’s 58 percent more than the average Palestinian worker would’ve made by then, according to the most recent wage averages reported by the PCBS.
Yseen has been able to flourish because of her participation in Olive Oil Without Borders (OOWB). Since its launch in 2005, OOWB has cross-trained over 3,000 Palestinian and Israeli farmers.
The purpose of the program is to connect olive oil farmers on both sides of the border to learn best practices from one another.
Yseen heard about OOWB in 2006 from the former president of That Al-Netqeen, a women’s organization in her community where she acts as a coordinator managing 60 women working for 13 different school canteens. She attended a training session where the Near East Foundation was teaching farmers how to make organic fertilizer.
“Olive Oil Without Borders helped me a lot though the technical training, (from) tasting olive oil to recognizing the extra virgin oil, (and) composting,” she said. “The taste issue is really important because when we export this oil for Europe, for example, the specification should have the taste issues from two sides: the lab examination for PH (acidity) and others for the taste side.” (Extra virgin oil has the lowest PH levels.)
Yseen has participated in 10 trainings in Israel since joining OOWB, and she has earned a certification in olive oil tasting.
The quality of her oil has improved, gaining the attention of Canaan Fair Trade, a Palestinian-led company that trades olive oil from small villages like Yseen’s and ships it to the United States, United Arab Emirates and other parts of the world.
Yseen estimates that her lands produce about 120 to 150 tanks per year. Each tank weights slightly over 35 pounds.
Because her 13 acres of farmland are bountiful, Yseen keeps family members and five male employees busy in the fields every day. She pays her employees 100 shekels per day, more than the 89 shekels that the average agriculture worker made in 2013, according to the PSBS. She also provides her workers with meals when they break and offers them crops like her olives in addition to what she prepares for them.
Yseen has known all her employees since they were children, she said.
“I selected those five employees since I knew them before. And, they are happy with me so they will never leave me to work at another farm.”
She said another OOWB farmer, one she considers the best in West Bank, pays his employees 25 shekels less than she does.
“It is for the honor and reputation for the woman at the top” that she pays more, she says.
While Yseen’s olive oil farming is doing well, she has found other ways to generate income for her family as the top breadwinner.
The first level of her home, which was designed by her husband and his brother, hosts a shop that she started in 1999 to sell her products and other goods. The second level is living space, where she treats guests to olives from her farm and her homemade cheese in her living room. Past that are the beds that sleep her two younger daughters, one of her sons and two small grandchildren.
Just around the corner, her kitchen serves as a place for her two teenage daughters to pitch in with household chores as she goes between her tasks of making soap and cheese.
“I wanted to work and to create this business since my husband is sick and I need to find new sources of income for my family,” she said. “If my husband worked, the condition will be different.”
Her husband, Mahmoud, 64, has a damaged cornea as the result of diabetes. About 10 years ago, he noticed that his vision focused in and out, so he saw a doctor.
“I didn’t know I had diabetes until it affected my eyes,” he said.
He said his vision has improved and his blood sugar levels are now normal, but without glasses everything is still quite blurry.
“I see just enough to see (Myasar’s) beauty,” he said, smiling at her.
Although Mahmoud’s health has pushed Myasar into her role as the main source of income, his health wasn’t the original motivator behind her extraordinary success.
Years ago, Mahmoud was studying in Italy to become a general practitioner. He’s still fluent in Italian, but that is about all that’s left of his education there. With the First Intifada, he was blocked from returning to Italy, with only two years left to complete his studies.
Seeking higher education has been what most of her children have done. Yseen herself has a two-year degree in psychology and she was a teacher in Saudi Arabia for a time before settling in the West Bank.
Out of the her eight children, six either have bachelor’s degrees or are in the process of receiving one.
Her 23-year-old son, Hilal, is studying civil engineering at Palestine Polytechnic University in Hebron, which is about three hours away from home. He said he wants to become a professor at the university, although farming has always been a part of his life.
“I am a farmer since I was a baby,” he said. “My mother was taking me to the field”
Yseen smiled at her son, both with pride and amusement.
“The women here work at the farm when they are pregnant,” she said. “I delivered my baby after I picked the olives the same day.”
While Hilal might not work on the land after he receives his degree, the family land is sure to experience some care at the hands of her 16-year-old daughter Karmen and her 13-year-old daughter Shahed.
“Our mom is the best model for us. I’d like to be like her,” said Karmen, blushing with embarrassment and admiration for her mother. I always want to be close to you.”
And to the land, especially the olive fields.
“Everything (about) olive trees is great and blessed: the oil, wood and olives,” she said. “We can benefit from everything. And we are growing with the olive trees.”