'We just want to be heard': Woman in Gaza builds app to help support fellow mothers
Nour al-Khodary hopes to change lives with ‘Momy Helper’, the first Arabic language app of its kind
Without childcare or support, and with few parenting handbooks available, that frustration, anger and despair can be channelled towards the children.
One Gazan mother, Nour al-Khodary, wants to help change that with a new app, Momy Helper.
It is the first of its kind in Arabic: at the click of a button mothers can access how-to guides for parenting, be connected to trained specialists, and get support for gender-based violence and other issues faced by women.
The former film producer says it is a simple solution to one of the most unspoken taboos in the Middle East: being a mother who cannot cope.
“Everyone is stressed here in Gaza. We don’t have peace inside ourselves. Each day we are following in the news: what will happen next, who will be killed, which building will be hit?” she tells The Independent from her offices at Gaza Sky Geeks, a tech hub in the 25-mile long militant-run strip.
“The kids pay for this: the mother, the father, the family are all under pressure,” she adds.
She says she wants to connect mothers to professional consultants specialising in psychology and parenting.
“You can’t simply can’t go to a professional in our culture – your family and your husband will not support it.
“People call you crazy, they blame the women for not being able to cope. It’s a taboo. You end up sunk in depression, which you take out on your kids. But with the app you can have discreet and confidential support,” she explains.
The app, which is registered in Delaware, aims to break through blockades, barriers and borders and help women both within Gaza and across the Arabic-speaking world on how to look after and support their children.
Through the app, women can also discreetly book paid sessions from among their team of more than 100 professionals, who speak multiple Arabic dialects and have been carefully vetted.
Ms Khodary acknowledges that Momy Helper can only reach those who can afford mobile phones and so cannot fix all problems women face, but hopes it can help be part of a solution.
In a trial run last year, Momy Helper paired up with Oxfam to provide free support sessions for mothers who could not afford to pay or did not dare ask their husbands.
In Gaza, where few have bank accounts or credit cards, women can pay for the $15 hour-long sessions in person.
The app, which is available on Google Play, also provides basic questionnaires to help identify what issues the user is facing and then direct them to the correct free advice in Arabic.
Ms Khodary hopes in the future to use artificial intelligence to better improve the interaction.
For now, they have step-by-step guides of what to expect each month with their new child, and how best to improve the child's development at each key stage.
After hearing some of the worst stories from women who have reached out to Momy Helper, Ms Khodary also wants to pair up with charities to improve the gender-based violence section of the app and blog.
Gender-based and domestic violence is increasing in Gaza, according to a rights group, which says it is driven by soaring unemployment and poverty rates among Gaza’s trapped 1.8 million population.
According to the United Nations, more than half of women in Gaza have experienced violence at home, while nearly 80 per cent have reported being psychologically abused. Depression is also thought to be on the rise.
Ms Khodary hopes her app can, in some way, support some women across the Arab world going through this.
“Sometimes mothers just need someone to hear them. We can’t provide professional therapy, but our consultants try to give them support on how they can better deal with their issues,” she says.
“With severe cases we encourage them to seek professional therapy and we try to put them in touch with facilities to help with that,” she adds.
Ms Khodary says she first came up with the idea in 2014 after having her son Bassem when she was briefly living in Chicago as her husband, who had secured a Fulbright scholarship, was finishing his Masters in Architectural Engineering.
A long way away from home, Ms Khodary turned to the wealth of childcare literature and support available in the US.
“When I was in Gaza I didn’t pay much attention to how people brought up their kids but after I read the books, I realised [back home] mothers were hitting their kids and shouting at them. Children just had to follow orders without thinking,” she says.
“This shocked me and I started posting on Facebook about what I had learned,” she adds.
She initially received angry backlash from friends who thought she was judging them.
But that changed to a stream of questions when she put up videos showing examples of positive results from her little boy Bassem.
“Then I start thinking about connecting mothers with professional consultants, I realised there was nothing for mothers speaking Arabic,” she says.
Through Gaza Sky Geeks, a Mercy Corps-supported initiative that runs a coding academy, she put together a 10-person team to build the app. In 2017 she came second in a region-wide competition in Istanbul for best start-up in the Middle East and North Africa.
But the problem now is funding. Ms Khodary secured a small injection of cash from angel investors at the start, who gave her around 10 per cent of what was needed.
But two years on she has had to drop her team and is now running the business entirely on her own.
She registered the app in Delaware and with a US bank, knowing foreign investors would be nervous about money going into Gaza. Right now, she is looking into crowdfunding options.
The working mother hopes to run the app as a business, so she can create work back in Gaza where youth unemployment has soared past 70 per cent and only 19 per cent of women of working age have jobs: the highest female jobless rate in the world
“My first dream is that I can reach every woman in the Arab world that needs the support that Momy Helper can offer,” she says.
“But I have a bigger dream, to be the first female investor in Palestine, to grow my business and earn enough to be able to invest in other start-ups to help others achieve their goals.”