|1 June, 2011
When I first met Basma six years ago, I was immediately drawn to her sense of humour and positive outlook. Like many other women in this small Muslim nation, Basma married young and soon had six children to provide for.
Basma made a small income through sewing simple dresses for her neighbours but when her husband, Ahmad, lost his job, they struggled to make ends meet. Although unhappy, they resigned themselves to the life they had been given, with the fatalism typical of Islam. They also both chewed qat (an addictive narcotic leaf) regularly, an addiction which contributed to their financial hardship.
Finding the best way to help About four years ago Basma needed to have some urgent dental work done. When she approached me for money, it was awkward: I could see that my friend was in pain but I didn’t want to just start handing over money, as it inevitably leads to dependency and loss of dignity. So I gave Basma some paracetamol to help with her immediate pain, then made her a proposal – she had already been making bags out of local embroidered cloth for a friend, so I told her I would pay her costs, plus give her a fair hourly rate, if she could make some bags for me to sell to other foreigners.
Basma borrowed money from relatives to fix her teeth, but made enough money from her first production of bags to start paying them back. The opportunity to earn her own money not only helped Basma through an embarrassing and desperate situation but also provided her with more independence.
A dream comes true Basma had once had a dream that we would end up in business together. Even though great importance is given to dreams in Islam, I thought little of it when Basma told me about her dream… yet within a year, our micro-enterprise had begun.
An expat colleague had already started a little craft business with her local friends using traditional embroidery, so we teamed up together. We had no formal business experience but it seemed an enjoyable and helpful way to generate regular income for our local friends. We decided to name our little business ‘Patience’ in the local language… and we certainly needed lots of it to get the product ‘just right’. Because work is seen as a curse, there is often no pride in finishing things here, and we have returned products multiple times for reworking to make them suitable for selling.
Our business sells three types of products. The first is qamariya, small, decorative halfmoon windows that are made out of plaster, cement and coloured glass. The second group includes embroidered pillowcases, mobilephone bags and pencil cases. One woman cuts the fabric and coordinates the colours, gives the pieces to six other women to embroider, and then the products are sewn by two other women. The third is what grew out of my response to Basma. Her three daughters help her sew the bags, and this gives them some money for clothing, schoolbooks, the bus, and social events.
Encouraging giving Even though our business is very small, it helps local craftspeople generate income to support their families. The women in particular have benefited, as it enables them to earn an aboveaverage income in a country where opportunities for employment outside the home are not common.
We display the products in our guesthouse, a guesthouse in the capital city, and in a café. We also encourage other Christians to take the products at cost to sell to their own friends or through stalls at meeting places or markets. We have even set up a website, but postage in and out of our country is a problem so most goods are carried by hand, which places a big limitation on the development of the business.
Our customers appreciate being able to easily buy genuine gifts from the region, and feel good about the fact they are helping families directly with every purchase. Also, the products are portable, making them a very convenient gift to take to families, friends and supporters to help them remember our country in prayer. Any extra money generated is used for product development and for giving non-monetary bonuses to the craftspeople involved, from schoolbooks up to computers.
Growing hope and confidence Life is harder now in the city than it was six years ago. However, the perseverance of Basma and her family has paid off. Her husband now has regular work as a security guard, two of their daughters are in higher education – and are being encouraged by their father to finish before getting married – and the other four children are doing well in school. Basma and Ahmad have even stopped chewing qat, after realizing that every leaf was money that could be used for education instead.
I have grown to love Basma and her family. Although it is against the law to share Jesus openly here, and conversion from Islam can mean the death penalty, we have had many “God” conversations that have all come through developing a business together. Basma’s sewing continues to improve – last year she even taught herself the traditional embroidery and within two weeks was doing a professional job – and she now has a hope and a confidence that I believe comes from God. Although she has not confessed, she now knows life can be greatly different from what Islamic fatalism expects. Pray for her to be brave and to start reading the Bible. Pray for all her family to read it also, and together make a decision for Him.
Sue and her family have been serving in the Arab world since 2004.