Setting up shop and women's empowerment in Damascus

“Today we don’t have any water,” Rania Kinge said, calling from her workshop, in Syrian capital Damascus, “no water to shower and there is no bottled water in the shops.”

The water cuts have been happening in Damascus since December 22 due to damage to infrastructure caused by fighting between rebel and Syrian forces in the Barada Valley. The lack of water is one among many challenges that Syrian-born Kinge faces while running “I Love Syria”, a social enterprise working with internally displaced women arriving to Damascus.

“I visited a shelter and met these women,” Kinge explained, “I thought to myself, we need to provide them with income so that they can have independence and peace, not poverty and violence.”

I Love Syria’s iconic pieces are crochet bags and bracelets made with semi-precious stones or the Syrian flag made from beads. Kinge also employs local artisans to make the Damascus Concept Tunics that are sold on the shop.

In Kinge’s experience, the idea of a social enterprise is still quite alien in Damascus: “They ask, so are you for profit or are you a charity? We are not only for profit, but we’d like to make a profit.”

There is also some confusion around where Kinge’s project stands politically. Using the Syrian flag in her designs and branding has caused some to think that Kinge’s project was politically aligned with the Syrian government.

“The Syrian national flag is seen to be supporting the government,” she said, “but displaced women are considered to be against the government, so every side is suspicious of us.”

Altogether, 20 women are employed on full time or casual basis at the I Love Syria workshop. Kinge, who sees this project as “a stepping stone for women’s rights”, trains the women in handicraft skills.

“They are bringing money to their family,” she said, “in my mind, the answer to the crisis is women empowerment and economic development.”

The atmosphere in the workshop is intended to be family-like and filled with beauty and colours. The places that some of the women came from are now in ruins, like the Jobar district near Damascus, the Palestinian neighbourhood Mokhayam Falastin, and Deirezzor in Eastern Syria.

As well as practical challenges, such as accessing water, heating and electricity, there are emotional challenges to overcome, like trauma that the women and girls may have experienced.

“Some of the women arrived to Damascus with just their slippers and pyjamas,” Kinge said, “here, we try not to talk about sad things, we laugh about stupid thing and tease each other."

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