A mixture of pride and happiness overwhelmed Essar Sharaf when she saw her wood-carved products selling like hot cakes at an exhibition hosted by a Turkish-funded program that sponsored her year of vocational training.
But this hadn't been the case two years ago. Sharaf, who was disabled during Israel's 2008/09 war on the Gaza Strip, had been on the verge of despair. Each day was worse than the last.
But light appeared at the end of the tunnel when she learned of a Turkish-funded program, dubbed "Irada" ("will" in Arabic), which provided Gazans disabled in the war with vocational training with the ultimate aim of helping them earn their own livelihoods.
"Before signing in a year ago, I didn't feel my existence in the world had any meaning. I lost hope in everything," Sharaf told Anadolu Agency. "My leg disability prevented me from having a normal life. I was in bad condition psychologically."
Today, by contrast, Sharaf works like a machine, making the most of her time with the project by producing as many wood-carvings as she can – bearing in mind that her employment will come to a close by year's end.
"The Irada project opened a window of hope and pulled us out of the darkness in which we were living because of our disabilities," she said. "Now we're able to work and produce – despite our disabilities."
The program, funded by the Turkish government and run by the Islamic University of Gaza, aims to rehabilitate Gazans handicapped by Israel's three-week-long "Cast Lead" assault on the strip – in which hundreds were killed and thousands gravely injured – through vocational and academic training.
A first batch of trainees went through the program last year. They received jobs with one-year contracts in order to hone the skills they learned in the program.
According to program director Emad al-Masri, the project has so far provided 400 disabled Gazans with training and temporary employment.
"As of the beginning of next year, a new batch of participants will be enrolled in training and jobs to allow them to be integrated into society," he added.
Al-Masri hopes that future installments of the program will expand to include larger numbers of disabled Gazans. According to unofficial figures, some 100,000 Gazans have special needs. Of these, 3,000 have already registered with the program in hopes of participating next year.
"The growing turnout stems from the fact that the Irada program offers rehabilitation and training services that no other programs can offer," he said.
The program also organizes exhibitions to help participants sell their products, added al-Masri, noting the difficulty of exporting goods from the embattled coastal enclave.
"Artistic products – like wood-carvings, paintings and embroideries – are better sold outside Gaza, so we hope merchants will buy and export them to help develop the program," al-Masri said.
So far, he added, the program had cost $4 million, which has gone towards training project participants, building and equipping project offices and providing transportation.
Sharaf, along with her colleagues, expressed sorrow that her time with the program would come to a close by the end of this year.
"When I started with the Irada program, my life changed drastically. I finally felt my life had meaning," she said. "I was overwhelmed with joy and pride when I saw the products we had made on display."
She now hopes the program will be further expanded so that she can stay on for the next term, along with new trainees.
"I don't want to sit at home without a job," Sharaf said.