The Story of Manal Abu Shalouf

One Palestinian girl's experience since Operation Cast Lead

Here in the office of Grassroots International hang many pictures of our partners from around the world. One we all love features a beautiful Palestinian girl proudly hugging a huge turnip grown in her family’s garden plot. In fact, we so appreciate the picture that we created a greeting card with her image and story, and many recipients have asked: “What happened to her? Where is she today?”

Here’s her story.

Nine-year-old Manal Abu Shalouf and her family live in the Gaza Strip. Many of her neighbors – and many women of the region – owe their livelihood and sense of hope to Manal’s grandmother, Fatima Abu Shalouf, a member of the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC), a Grassroots International partner that works on urban agriculture in Gaza. Fatima advocated for local control of agriculture—starting with seeds. Women poured into her training courses and excitedly went home to pilot their own projects like saving seeds in their kitchen sinks and planting gardens on their rooftops. And when the Israeli siege hit in 2006, Fatima was ready to take her idea to the next level to further protect her people by establishing the first seed bank in Gaza.

Two years later, Fatima was diagnosed with severe bone cancer. By the time the first airstrikes signaled the beginning of Operation “Cast Lead,” in 2008/09 Fatima was losing her own battle for her life. From her hospital bed where she lay next to victims of the war, she asked her family to carry on her work. A few months after the war ended, Fatima died. She was 58 and Manal was just five years old.

Fatima’s family continues to carry on her legacy. They set up a seed drying station and turned one of the rooms of their home into a small storehouse. They planted crops outside the home and on the rooftop, started to raise animals and even set up a fish pond.

Manal, her two sisters and three brothers work with their parents and grandfather to keep the crops growing strong. But in her young life, she has experienced great challenges already. Manal says, “I was so young, but I will never be able to forget the scene when the Israeli soldiers came and destroyed our farm [during Operation Cast Lead].”  After the bombing stopped, “I ran to see the farm with my family, but I found nothing but valleys and mountains of sand and upturned tree roots. Leaves and stems were scattered here and there. What was even more painful were the sad looks on the faces of my father and grandfather,” Manal remembers.

The very next day, Manal’s father and grandfather replanted the trees to replace those uprooted by Israeli soldiers. Her mother also planted a new grape vine in the backyard. “I love stuffed grape leaves very much,” Manal says, “and my mother makes it in a very special and delicious way.”

Manal’s family proudly describes her as a smart, mindful and quick-witted girl who is at the top of her class in school and “lives without fear of embarrassment.” She loves to work on the garden with her grandfather. “I go visit the farm after I finish my homework,” she says. “I still don’t know how to cultivate trees or plants – my father hasn’t taught me yet because he thinks I am too young. But in harvesting season, I go with the family to collect the harvest. We have orange trees, clementine, guava, and olive trees that my grandfather cultivated after the older trees were uprooted. My father also grows molokheya, okra, peppers and beans.”

When asked about her future, Manal says, “When I grow up, I want to be a teacher to teach children love, ethics, respect of others and all the important things. Mainly how to love and cultivate the land – land is all we have, it gives us food and money to live. Land is what we inherit from our fathers and grandfathers, and we have to cherish, respect and protect it.”