Life as a refugee

A shopping trip to Suly

Meet three refugees in Sulaymaniyah City, in the east of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Updated 28 Mar 2022

A shopping trip to Suly.

A shopping trip to Suly.

Business start-up

Sulaymaniyah City, in the east of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), is a famous cultural centre in the region – with large bazaars, a vibrant art life, and beautiful views of mountains surrounding the skyline. In fact, Suly – as it is known colloquially – is sometimes referred to as the “City of Culture”.  

While KRI largely escaped the violence of the recent conflicts in Iraq, the region hosts many IDPs and refugees who have been displaced as a result of fighting in the country and neighbouring Syria. Although the economy shows signs of improvement, the region has also for years been impacted by a financial crisis affecting both the public and private sectors. This has had a significant impact on access to decent work, including in Suly. According to the International Labour Organization, only 40% of the working age population are participating in the labour force in KRI.  

In light of these challenges, DRC has been supporting individuals in Suly with business start-up or scale-up grants, with the support of the German Federal Government. This is a few of their stories; while the types of businesses supported varied, Suly’s reputation for arts and culture shine through. 

Draperies - Ibrahim's story

Draperies - Ibrahim's story

If you’re looking to add a little colour to your home, Ibrahim, 36, has a shop in the city with dozens of drapery options – he even has two staff, hired recently, to help measure and install them.

Ibrahim’s shop has taken off quickly since he opened it. From just an idea, DRC’s support has helped him start a business selling and installing draperies which now supports his whole family. 

“First, we received cash assistance, which meant we could pay off any debt that we had. If we have anything urgent that we need to take care of, we can afford to that too. Then we can focus completely on our business. While taking life skills and business literacy training, we think about what we should create, what our business should look like. I’m always saying running a business is a skill – not everyone has it.”  

A business success

Ibrahim’s shop has taken off quickly since he opened it. From just an idea, DRC’s support has helped him start a business selling and installing draperies which now supports his whole family. 

“First, we received cash assistance, which meant we could pay off any debt that we had. If we have anything urgent that we need to take care of, we can afford to that too. Then we can focus completely on our business. While taking life skills and business literacy training, we think about what we should create, what our business should look like. I’m always saying running a business is a skill – not everyone has it.”  

Ibrahim says the idea of opening a draperies business came pretty quickly to him:

“I was always into art and design, and I have a skill for tailoring, so I chose this.” 

His wife also has skills in tailoring, so it was a bonus that she could also help him with the business. He says it’s his skills in customer service – partly learned through the training provided by DRC – that keeps the customers coming back for his products and services. Ibrahim says that the customers particularly love that his shop serves as a one-stop-shop for draperies, also offering installation.  

“We don’t have much employment in the area,” Ibrahim says, explaining why projects like this are so important for the community, “we cannot find a job easily.” 

The impact of unemployment hits close to home for him – he has four sisters, all recent university graduates, who are struggling to find work: 

“I am supporting them financially. Part of the challenge is that there are only certain jobs that are acceptable for women in our community. But my sisters have applied for many different jobs, but they are not easy to find.” 

The fact that he is supporting his family makes the success of his business all the more rewarding. And although he only opened his store relatively recently, Ibrahim already has big plans for the future. He hopes to open another branch on the other side of town with a partner, and to hire additional staff in order to open a shop for washing and ironing curtains, positioning himself as a local expert in the field. 

Fashion - Nasreen's story

Fashion - Nasreen's story

Nasreen*, 32, always knew she wanted to work in fashion:

“When I was a child, my mom was a tailor, and I was always looking at her work and saying ‘one day I will be just like her.’ It’s in my blood, and I knew I would be successful at it.”

She now designs all her pieces, which are inspired by the local Kurdish culture.

Nasreen, 32, received a grant from DRC to help her scale up her business.

“Receiving the grant has changed my life,” Nasreen says.

“Before I was doing everything by hand and it took many hours to complete a piece. But now I was able to buy a computerized sewing machine – this has helped me increase my income and reduce the amount of time it requires for me to complete a piece.”

Women face particular challenges

And this is just the start – Nasreen says she now has big hopes for the future. 

“My plan for the future is to improve my business and expand it to open a small factory first, then a larger factory. I want to be able to create an opportunity for many other women who are creative and don’t have the opportunity to work.” 

Business grants like the one she received have significant impacts on the community, Nasreen says: 

“I believe they’re very good to support the community and businesses. There are so many young people that are graduated, and they are talented, but they cannot start their own businesses or they cannot grow their business.” Youth face higher rates of unemployment than the general population in Iraq, and recent months have seen several peaceful protests linked to unemployment in Suly. 

Women also face particular challenges accessing jobs. 

“In most households, the issue is the family – for example the father, brother, husband. Most of them are not allowing the woman to reach their goals and to work outside the home,” Nareen says.

This is a particular motivator for her: 

“As a woman, it’s nice to have your own work and be able to help other woman.” Nasreen has already been able to hire three female employees to help her meet demand, and as her business grows she hopes to support many more. 

“For the community, if I can change anything I would like any young people, especially women, to be able to reach their goals and work in the community,” she concludes.  

 

*Name changed

Children's clothing and furniture - Dastan's story

Children's clothing and furniture - Dastan's story

If you have little ones at home or in the family and are looking for some unique gifts, Dastan’s shop is full of locally made furniture and toys.

“When I first graduated, I wanted to do something different – I searched for something doesn’t exist in Kurdistan,” says Dastan, 27.

“After a while, I noticed we always import these kinds of products from other countries. There’s no factory in Kurdistan for making these cribs or these kinds of products. That’s why I said, this is it – I have to start this business.”

Dastan’s colourful shop is full of children’s furniture, bedding, wall art, clothing, and toys.

Business is growing

It hasn’t always been easy. She initially studied to work in the oil sector, but says she was always interested in art and drawn to artistic things so changed course after she graduated. And, when she opened her shop 5 years ago, she had very little to start with.

“When it was just an idea, I didn’t even have one dollar to start with. I went to my relative and asked them for US100. With that, I bought a sowing machine. At first everything was just online, but it was challenging because all the customers kept asking for a place to see the products.”

After some time, Dastan was able to get a shop to sell her products, but her business still was not growing as fast as she hoped – when she heard about DRC’s scale up grants, it sounded like an excellent opportunity.

“As soon as I saw the offer, I registered,” she says.

With the money she received through the grant, she bought fabrics and other materials to make her products, another machine to work on at home when she’s not at the shop, and other clothes and products to sell. While this has made a huge difference, Dastan says the business management training – provided to all grant recipients – was also particularly helpful. 

“I have a notebook where I have written down everything I learned. And every time I need something or there is a problem with the business, I will review the notes that I took in the training.”  

Now Dastan’s shop is thriving. She’s managed to hire an assistant to help her create the products and run the job, as well as has three other women’s work featured in the shop, supporting their livelihoods as well. Dastan says her favourite part of running a business is the feedback from customers:

“Whenever a customer comes in, they bring others. I have customers who have brought a minimum of ten other people. I send my products all over Iraq now. Before, all these things were made in Turkey – now they are made locally. And even before the baby is born, customers are coming and asking me for products.”  

And while Dastan is thrilled by this progress, her favourite customer will always be her 7-year-old daughter: 

“Whenever I make any products, my daughter wants one for herself,” she says proudly. 

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