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Fellowship of suffering

How to make a micro-business from refugee strife

Fellowship of suffering

Nour (left); Nour and Insaf (right) (Nour: Mindy Belz; Nour and Insaf: Handout)

ERBIL, Iraq—Like many living in northern Iraq, Nour Adil watched helplessly as her city filled with Syrian War refugees and Iraqis when ISIS took over and destroyed nearby cities. 

“We saw lots of ladies looking for jobs but having a hard time finding them,” Nour recalls. Her mother was skilled at sewing, and Nour had management skills from years in banking. Hopeful Hands was born. 

It was a less-than-hopeful start. Only two women signed up for a free one-month sewing course. “We’d already bought four used sewing machines and fabric,” Nour laughs. But 15 women came by the end of that week, and 29 the second week.

Sewing projects are common charity startups, yet few thrive. Hopeful Hands, now in its third year, has employed dozens of women, Christians and Muslims, most from Syria. 

The women work four days a week making flat and fitted bedsheets, pillowcases, tote bags, and more. A seamstress who is homebound makes quilts using leftover scraps. Hopeful Hands fills custom orders, too, sewing drapes in January for two local hotels.

Nour believes there’s a simple reason for the success: “My heart is in this. I was a refugee and I watched my mom when I was young. I know what these ladies are going through.”

‘I wanted to use what I know to benefit my country.’

Born in Baghdad, Nour and her family fled Iraq under threats from the Saddam Hussein regime. They spent seven years in Turkey before gaining asylum in Canada. If you’ve read They Say We Are Infidels, my 2016 book about Iraq and Syria, you’ve met Nour and her mother, Insaf Safou. As a refugee Insaf took up tailoring to help the family make ends meet in Turkey and Canada before returning to lead sewing projects in Iraq. Now the next generation is meeting needs in a new era of turbulent conflict and suffering. 

Nour left Iraq when she was 6 years old, and didn’t return until 2009, at age 21. On that trip she met Malath Baythoon, a pastor in Baghdad. They married in 2011 and planted an evangelical church in Erbil, a growing congregation. They have three children, and return for visits to Canada, where Nour’s parents, brother, and other relatives remain. 

“God took me on this journey, from here to Turkey to Canada, but I always said I wanted to use what I know to benefit my country. I knew I wanted to be here,” said Nour.

When Insaf comes for visits, she teaches the women to make new products. “Nour has carried this work beyond anything I could dream,” she told me by phone from her home in Canada. 

A visitor feels the friendship in the basement workshop, as women from different backgrounds and places are united by their common experience. Mornings begin with devotions, then the sewing machines start to whir. Two women measure drapery panels over a cutting table, while another crew stuffs decorative pillow covers, and several women work the ironing station, puffing steam.

When Menad, a woman displaced from Mosul, arrives, everyone stops to embrace her. Her mother died in Germany, having received asylum there when Menad did not. Menad longed to see her again before she died, and fought tears as the women surrounded her. 

“They all have stories,” said Nour.

The women are paid 3,000 Iraqi dinars ($2.50) an hour—something uncommon in Iraq. Working four days a week, said Nour, “they can buy groceries, and in that way are supporting their family.”

Plus, for the unpredictable life of the displaced, the work gives them something they crave: routine.

Sales—mostly through local stores and bazaars—cover the salaries. NGOs and church donors cover other costs, and Nour volunteers. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) pitched in after one of its officers heard Nour interviewed on Babylon FM, a popular radio station. An IOM grant made possible industrial sewing machines, a custom cutting table, and needed supplies. 

“We would like to expand, to see if we can sell overseas or simply display our work and share the stories of how lives have been changed through this work,” Nour told me. 

For now, I’m sleeping soundly on my pillowcase made by Hopeful Hands.

Visit to learn more about Hopeful Hands.


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  • WKSK
    Posted: Fri, 02/22/2019 10:56 am

    I really enjoyed the concluding line.