Najah Owad is a Syrian-Palestinian. Born in Yarmouk camp just south of Damascus, she is the eldest of nine siblings. Her father had a full time job with a modest salary which he supplemented by working additional hours in the neighborhood grocery to better provide for his family.
Najah recalls that it was her family’s modest finances, coupled with her parents’ encouragement that made her determined to continue with her studies so that she might succeed and achieve some financial independence in her life.
“When you have a goal and you work seriously and honestly at realizing it,” says Najah, “you will succeed. You must not be afraid of failure.”
Najah’s circumstances weren’t ideal for studying whilst she was young. She remembers how she would go to the neighbor’s house to receive help with her homework as her mother was illiterate and couldn’t read.
She longed to enroll in the Faculty of Pharmacy, but her secondary school grades weren’t good enough to do so. She enrolled in the Middle Institute for Health instead, graduating in 1995. Three years later, she worked on opening a pharmacy, wishing to fulfill her initial dream of becoming a pharmacist.
Najah recalls how she waited for one of her friends to finish her studies at the Faculty of Pharmacy in order secure her as a co-founder, and to persuade her father to financially contribute to the project.
Together, Najah and her partner searched for a suitable location for the pharmacy she’d long dreamt about, but the surrounding community was unwilling to accept the idea of a woman working amongst them. Their search for a location was made more difficult by the nearby store-owners and shopkeepers who kept making excuses or creating obstacles to discourage the women from the idea of working in the neighborhood.
“It was considered completely unacceptable, in the working-class environment of a place like Yarmouk, for two young women to launch a project on their own while so many men were unemployed. This is where my family’s support became so important. They encouraged me to pursue my goals. Even though my mother was illiterate, she always insisted on the importance of education for her children so that they could grow up and secure their own futures. That’s why, despite all the difficulties and the fact that we didn’t have all the required capital for the project, things began to improve little by little. We began dealing with a number of companies and pharmaceutical suppliers that allowed us to pay for our supplies and inventory in installments, and our project began to bear fruit because we always dealt with our distributors honestly and committed ourselves firmly to paying on time.
“At the beginning,” continues Najah, “we faced huge difficulties in launching our own project, and there were many who tried to warn us away from renting a certain place, always using a different excuse, such as the fact that this place falls within the zone for the area’s new urban plan, or that place has weak structural foundations, but none of these stopped us from moving forward on our chosen path. A lot of those who disapproved of our plans initially ended up becoming customers of our pharmacy.”
Najah also had to face some tricky situations after she began working at the pharmacy. “Some young men, who were addicted to narcotic pills, used to come into the pharmacy looking to buy them,” she recalls, “when they are not normally sold without a doctor’s prescription. Once, one of them pulled a knife on me, and so I told his older brother what he’d done and after that he never tried anything like that on us again.”
There were a large number of Syrians living in Yarmouk, but the camp always maintained its Palestinian character. There were pictures of Palestinian leaders and martyrs displayed everywhere and its streets were named after Palestinian cities, villages and martyrs.
Najah worked at the pharmacy for about five years, and during that time she managed to save enough money to buy a house. Despite support and encouragement from her husband to continue working after she gave birth, she was nevertheless forced to stay at home as her child had health issues that required special care.
Today, Najah is a mother to three children, and she works hard at raising them and instilling a love of learning and hard work in them, just as her father did with her. “My daughter,” he would always say, “you need to get your degree, as this will be your main weapon in life.”