Around 5 p.m. ET on May 17, Toronto startup Open Screenplay’s Slack channel received a message from the head of its team of developers in Gaza: “They just attacked the building that has our office…”
The message came with a photo of a destroyed building – the target of an Israeli air strike on the 10th day of deadly attacks in the city. In the picture, the building, which housed the Canadian tech company’s office as well as an insurance company, several charities and a bank, was a blackened ruin. Four people died in the attack.
Khaled Sabawi, the founder and chief executive officer of Open Screenplay, immediately got on the phone with members of his Gaza team of nine, who were uninjured in the attack because they had been working remotely since the violence and unrest in the region began on May 7.
“They were terrified,” said Mr. Sabawi, the son of refugees from Gaza who moved to Canada when he was three years old. “I couldn’t do anything except tell them over and over again that their safety comes first. It was the number-one thing I wanted them to focus on.”
Open Screenplay is an online platform that connects 20,000 diverse writers in Canada, the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand directly with businesses and entertainment companies looking for new stories. Mr. Sabawi, a Palestinian-Canadian entrepreneur with a passion for screenwriting, said the idea for the platform came from a recognition that “storytelling is the most powerful way to convey a message, yet the industries of storytelling – marketing and entertainment – are highly exclusionary.”
Mr. Sabawi said the company aims to “positively disrupt” the disparity by “disintermediating the agency model,” which forces writers to work with talent agencies and other middle-man organizations to secure work. He said the platform creates “a marketplace for stories,” where companies pay to host contests for the platform’s diverse community of writers, who can submit to these contests and access advanced features such as webinars and screenwriting software through a paid subscription.
The platform has been used by RBC to create video content on digital banking and by Toronto mental-health support platform Layla to create a short film about mental health that has been screened at five film festivals and won Best International Indie Short at the Venice Shorts Film Fest.
Launched in 2019, Open Screenplay has a five-member team in Toronto, where it is headquartered at Ryerson University’s DMZ startup incubator, and two employees in the U.S. In 2018, the company hired a team of nine developers in Gaza through Gaza Sky Geeks, an incubator created by global aid organization Mercy Corps in partnership with Google, the governments of Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands, and tech firms such as Techstars, Amazon Web Services, Salesforce and GitHub.
A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said the government created an agreement with Mercy Corps in March 2018 to offer $10-million over five years in funding for Gaza Sky Geeks. Global Affairs Canada also helps administer the program to help women and youth in Gaza access jobs in the tech sector.
Gaza Sky Geeks offers employment opportunities to young people in Gaza, where 60 per cent of the population is under the age of 24 and the unemployment rate is 50 per cent. The incubator has connected 25 global companies around the world with local talent. Open Screenplay is currently the only Canadian company working with them.
Hiring a team in Gaza was his way “to put compassion back in capitalism,” Mr. Sabawi said, and give some of the young people there “a safe hub to build a better future for themselves.”
Ibrahim Muhaisen, a 29-year-old developer and head of Open Screenplay’s Gaza team, said the team was grateful to be working remotely for a week before the air strike on the office. He lives a five-minute drive away from the building and heard “a loud bombing sound” on the day the office was attacked, and got confirmation on the local news. When he visited the building the next day, he recognized destroyed laptops and other technical equipment in the rubble. “It was a terrible view,” he said.
Mr. Muhaisen is working with Open Screenplay’s office landlord to help rebuild over the next two months.
“We’ve never been to Canada, but the Canadian government pays my salary and a Canadian company pays my husband’s salary,” said Leena Ayesh, Mr. Muhaisen’s wife and a job-placement co-ordinator with Gaza Sky Geeks. “It’s hard to explain what it’s like living and working here while there’s a bombing every day.”
Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire last Thursday.
While Open Screenplay has continued to operate through the unrest in Gaza, Mr. Sabawi said the company’s staff there have suffered “deep psychological pain at the indiscriminate destruction and a setback to their hopes and aspirations of rising above their harsh environment.
“We’re going to continue to hire developers in Gaza,” Mr. Sabawi added. “Despite suffering bombings and apartheid, they inspire us every day with their hard work and resilience. I’m honestly in awe of them.”
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