Refugee Women Get a Taste of Entrepreneurship    

When refugees arrive in a new country, they bring little to no material possessions. But many bring something more valuable: their talent and skills. 

Twenty refugee women and asylum-seekers from different parts of the world recently came together at a pop-up store in Phoenix, Arizona, to display their homemade products and tell their compelling stories.  

The details and the countries may be different, but their stories are strikingly similar. 

From Iraq

Nada Alrubaye was an art teacher who fled Iraq. “I had two boys. One, my young boy, was killed in Baghdad,” she said. “I decided to go to Turkey with another son because I wanted to protect him.” They arrived in Arizona four years ago.  

“I escaped from Syria seven years ago when the war started,” said Rodain Abo Zeed, through an interpreter, “because there was no safety and no opportunities for my kids to continue their education, and because my husband’s restaurant got burned down to ashes.” She traveled first to Jordan and then came to the U.S.  

From Afghanistan

Tahmina Besmal was in her early 20’s when she fled Afghanistan. “Me, my mom, and two sisters because of safety and there was no opportunities for ladies to go to school, to do a job, to be independent.” Her family lived in India for six years before coming to Phoenix.

A step toward self-sufficiency

A team of graduate social work students at Arizona State University created the Global Market pop-up store to help these women become self-sufficient. They welcomed the opportunity to sell their homemade products at this donated retail space in downtown Phoenix.

“The global market project is developed in a collaboration between local non-profits and Arizona State,” one of the students, Alyaa Al-Maadeed, said. “So the way that we designed this project is just by using a concept from the world of business, which is a pop-up store, and integrated it into the world of social work.” 

Asna Masood is president of one of the nonprofit partners — the American Muslim Women’s Association (AMWA). “Last year, we started new beginning skills training program for refugee women,” she said. “We teach them how to sew and then help them sell those items to the community.”

Learning a skill

Tahmina Besmal acquired sewing skills in the program and brought aprons, purses, and tablet cases she sewed at home to the pop-up store.

Other items for sale at the store included handicraft arts, soap and organic body care products, international sweets, paintings, jewelry and more. An Iraqi refugee applied henna tattoos on customers’ hands.

“The pop-up market is good for me because I bring all my stuff here. They were only in my home,” said Nada Alrubaye. “I sold some of my paintings like today, I sold two paintings and some of my jewelry.” Alrubaye said she was happy with the opportunity.

The pop-up store was only open for a month. But Megan McDermott, another graduate student on the team, said organizers have a long-term vision.

“The goal of the project is not only to bring these women short-term income. We want to really provide them with the experience of learning how to run their own business and learning how to be entrepreneurs.” 

From Iraq

The goal resonates with Tara Albarazanchi, an Iraqi asylum-seeker who offered her homemade soaps and body care products.

“This pop-up market gives me that experience of working in a shop, dealing with people, dealing with cash, and knowing how to make the books,” she said.  “I am talking about my products. It gives me the exposure that I was looking for.”

Organizers hope visitors to the store learned something as well.

As Alyaa Al-Maadeed explained, “It offers an educational opportunity for the customers to come in and interact with people from different parts of the world and learn their stories and learn what is a refugee and what does it mean to come from another part of the world having nothing to begin with.” 

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