Meet the 12-year-old Gaza IT geek

Mohammed Alhaulimy

Hosam Salem

Twelve-year-olds across the world like their computers. But few take it to the level of Mohammad Alhaulimy.

From a young age, Mohammad has shown a passion for computers, coding and technology, a passion that has been indulged by his family, and which has seen him receive support from other countries and invitations to conferences around the region.

Mohammad built his first mobile application, World Savers, at the age of 9. He sought to raise awareness about global issues such as wars and pollution in a game format. It didn’t go far, and has now been forgotten, but it was a first challenge for the budding coder.

“I wanted to create something of my own, a game or a video … Something that I would appreciate,” Mohammad said as he stared at his Mac.

He attended an International Computer Driving License, ICDL, course when he was 7, to secure the global computer skills certification. But he soon found it was not challenging enough.

“The courses I attended never satisfied me. I turned to the Internet and YouTube searching for what I’ve missed in courses,” he said, as a Facebook notification popped onto his screen.

Mohammad’s family was supportive from the beginning. Luai Mohammad Alhaulimy, Mohammad’s proud teacher father, bought his son a brand new laptop at the age of 10 to encourage him to improve his skills.

His mother Elham, believes her son has a unique and ambitious character that will lead him to success. Yet she worries about the time he spends in front of the screen, where “he sits focused for long hours.”

“I am afraid that his health might be affected. He is my only son,” said Elham. “But I am happy we have a little genius in our house.”

Mohammad’s potential was soon recognized elsewhere. In 2014, he took part in the Microsoft Imagine Cup student technology competition, where he, along with another Palestinian from the West Bank, beat off competition from 500 others to make it through to the final round.

International connections

Microsoft Imagine Cup and other such events are hosted by Gaza Sky Geeks, which says it is the first startup business accelerator in Gaza. Gaza Sky Geeks was founded by Mercy Corps, an international charity that tries to encourage innovation and small enterprises around the world. It aims to connect Gaza’s most talented youths with investors to provide them with expertise, mentorship and networks.

Said Hassan, Gaza Sky Geeks outreach and acceleration manager, said the organization provides equal opportunities for all members regardless of age and based entirely on merit. And Mohammad has already been connected with the Zain IT corporation in Jordan.

“[We] connected Mohammad to Khaled ElAhmad, a social media manager at Zain, who helped him get a new Mac after a crowdfunding campaign in Jordan,” said Hassan.

Gaza Sky Geeks also connected the boy to a game studio in Gaza — Baskalet (bicycle), which they said is the first game developer in the coastal enclave to receive significant international funding. There, said Hassan, Mohammad has been able to “polish up his skills, acquire professional experience and get involved in vibrant community that nurtures innovation.”

Mohammad receives invitations from IT companies around the world to participate in conferences and competitions. Among them have been the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 2015 and the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona the same year. But Israeli and Egyptian-imposed travel restrictions on Palestinians in Gaza mean leaving the impoverished strip is a near impossible task, and Mohammad has not made a single such IT meet yet.

“Sometimes you just have to live with being a Palestinian. I’ve been denied the right to travel many times. Recently, I missed a robots and artificial intelligence competition in Jordan,” said Mohammad.

The event was organized by the Arab Robotics Association and took place in the Jordan Valley in March.

Mohammad’s love of computer coding has also pushed him to learn more languages, and he is especially interested in Hebrew. Even though English would be adequate, lessons are more expensive in Gaza, said Mohammad, who added that he wants to explore Hebrew programming websites.

“English courses are too expensive here in Gaza. They can also be found easily on YouTube. Hebrew courses are more affordable. I am also more interested to learn Hebrew than other languages,” said Mohammed.

Hebrew lessons, global ambitions

Learning Hebrew is becoming a phenomenon in the Gaza Strip, where more and more people are enrolling for lessons. Mohammad is the youngest student at the Nafha Center for Prisoners Studies and Israeli Affairs, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a high achiever.

After getting top marks at the intermediate level, he is now studying for the Hebrew language diploma.

“Mohammad has a bubbly personality that helped him associate with everyone in the course,” said Eman Ben Said, who teaches Hebrew at the center. “Besides being phenomenally intelligent, he is witty, self-confident and knows more than his other older peers.”

His is a convivial presence that often makes his fellow students laugh, said Saed, who is keen that the boy’s potential is embraced and nurtured.

“Mohammad, generally, tends to have older friends,” his mother said. “He has friends his age, but he acts and thinks like an adult.”

Mohammad’s role model is Steve Jobs, the late CEO and founder of Apple.

“ ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish,’” he quotes his idol, before explaining why this so resonates with him: “Never be satisfied and be eager to know and do more. Be foolish; be ready to step out of your comfort zone and try to do things that people say cannot be done.”

Merely pursuing his IT ambitions in the very difficult environment of Gaza might itself seem quixotic. A nearly decade-long Israeli blockade of Gaza means IT infrastructure is very much outdated. Israel has prevented Palestinian IT companies from offering 3G, let alone 4G, services and available equipment and training reflect this isolation.

Luckily, even with slow connection speeds, Mohammad can still interact with a global community and improve his skills through sheer doggedness. And he is not put off by the hardships around him.

“My dream is to found a company that might change the world somehow. No Arab is mentioned globally when it comes to IT. I want to be the first.”

Nesma Seyam is an interpreter and journalist based in Gaza. Twitter: @Nesma_Seyam