Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans — maintaining dignity of trade during a pandemic
“We created a whole new network; we export their products all over the world.”
COVID-19 has been devastating for small businesses across the globe. With lockdowns in place and people at home, the coronavirus pandemic has caused big financial woes worldwide.
The city of Bethlehem has been adversely affected by the crisis since tourism is its top income generator. Visitors to Israel groups often choose to make the short trip into Bethlehem, located in the Palestinian Authority.
Indeed, Bethlehem is a fascinating city. The Church of Nativity, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, is a must-see site. St. Catherine’s Church is known for its steps which lead down to the northern part of a cave system. The Milk Grotto and the nearby Shepherd’s Fields are also popular destinations. And Manger Square — the central hub of modern Bethlehem featuring cafes, restaurants and shops.
Sadly, Bethlehem hardly saw any tourists last year and, none this year, and as a result, many people lost their jobs and their livelihoods, particularly hotels, restaurants, tourist sites and souvenir shops. In the midst of the challenge, there is one organization that continues to provide assistance and hope for many of these people.
Founded in 2009, Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans (BFTA) is a non-profit organization which helps artisans sell their goods locally and internationally to a broader market.
Susan Sahouri, director of BFTA explains their mission.
Susan Sahouri, director of Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans (Photo courtesy)
“Our organization serves as an umbrella to support dozens of family-owned workshops and other creative, talented artisans in and around Bethlehem. We created a whole new network; we export their products all over the world. They might not otherwise have this opportunity because of language and education,” she said.
Today, BFTA serves more than 50 olive wood workshops, olive oil soap makers, ceramics and blown-glass factories, embroidery cooperatives and basket weaving and jewelry -making workshops.
BFTA recently established their Craft Village in the city of Beit Sahour, allowing visitors to have a unique Palestinian experience. The Craft Village buildings were originally owned by three families who left the country. The abandoned area soon became a dumping ground for community garbage. The Ministry of Tourism and the municipality of Beit Sahour asked BFTA to submit a proposal to renovate the buildings.
BFTA presented the concept of a craft village where artisans could meet each other and work together. The proposal was approved and since opening, Craft Village now has a conference space for locals and internationals to meet, a kitchen where local women can host meals for international visitors and a gift shop that sells the artisans’ products. In this way, the Craft Village is not only used for entertainment, but also for cultural exchange and educational purposes. Visitors can learn about the crafts being made and even arrange joint activities, for example international and local women teaching each other embroidery techniques.
“Our visitors want to meet the Palestinian people. When people order from us, they don’t say ‘I want to order a product number or product code.’ They say, ‘I want the work of Nidal’ or ‘I want the work of Elias,’” Sahouri said. “It’s because they have personally met the artisan. They know them by name and they want to order their products. It’s not only a gift from the Holy Land, but learning the story behind the gift.”
Craft Village (Photo courtesy)
BFTA empowers its artisans by providing them with job opportunities and training such as English language lessons at Bethlehem University and learning how to manage their business.
“We discovered that most of the family-owned workshops had no idea how much they produced and how much money they made at the end of the year,” Sahouri said. “BFTA helps by managing their own workshops so they will know if they have made some profit.”
In addition, they represent four special needs groups which produce items such as nativity scenes from felt wool and recycled greeting cards.
“This was a sector which was completely ignored,” said Sahouri, “but for the past 10 years, people have become aware that the handicapped in society are also human beings.”
“Our staff spends the whole day with them — we try to spend days — it is so much fun! We do activities with them, we have lunch with them, we work with them. We make them feel they are part of us. These are very simple things we do together, but it makes them also feel human,” she said.
Craft Village (Photo courtesy)
The special needs groups can sell their products directly for profit or benefit by selling through BFTA’s network.
During the past year with the coronavirus pandemic, BFTA has tried to help their artisans continue to earn income, but it’s been very difficult.
“Christmas this year was very sad,” said Sahouri. “I didn’t even bother to go to Bethlehem. Usually, I have all my friends from the U.S. and from Europe coming to stay in my home and we go to Bethlehem to celebrate with everybody.”
“Some of our families don’t have money to buy medicine or food because their income came to a halt. It is zero,” Sahouri said. “They used to sell through souvenir shops. They can sell through BFTA’s network or through friends who live abroad but COVID-19 has affected the whole world.”
“Through our network, these artisans have dedicated, fair trade partners from all over the world who have committed to place new orders despite knowing they may not sell. They were able to give the artisans some work this year, but not to all.”
In fact, Sahouri says that BFTA sales have decreased by as much as 45% this year.
Unfortunately, the government is not providing the artisans with any financial help either.
“I know the people I work with,” Sahouri said. “They have not received any kind of support. We pay our income taxes; they pay their fees to the government. At least they should get food to provide for their families. People in Europe and the U.S. are getting help from their government. We are getting no help from our government.”
Sahouri expressed her concern as she looks to the future.
“It is important to care for the tradition here — the materials are local, the artisans are local,” she said. “Sometimes our artisans go to the Israel side because they can make more money. They want to stay there as long as they have work. We may lose our young people.”
Sadly, things look just as bleak for Bethlehem in 2021. Sahouri doesn’t believe there will be tourists this year because of the pandemic.
“The situation is a disaster,” she said. “I want to see the place full of people — not just to support the artisans — but to give it life.”
“Now it is empty and I don’t like it empty. I pray to God that this will not happen again. I wish good health to all humanity all over the world,” she said.
To learn more about Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans and to order products, please visit their website.