Nour’s family fled Iraq in 1994 thinking they were leaving their home country for good. Nour did not know what country she would call their new home, nor could she predict the impact she would have on the lives of other women some 23 years later, back in Iraq.
The family spent seven years in Turkey waiting for their refugee application to be processed. During this time, Nour’s mother Insaf supported the family by sewing and selling passport bags, bible covers and handbags at local bazars and churches in Istanbul. They were eventually resettled in Canada in 2001. IOM did the travel arrangements in cooperation with the Government of Canada.
Insaf used to frequently return to Iraq to visit family, friends and the community she had left behind. In 2009, a grown up and curious Nour asked her mother if she could go along on one of these trips; and that changed her life.
“When I visited Iraq for the first time after leaving, I fell in love,’’ Nour said. ‘’It was all so much simpler and new to me. I loved seeing chickens running around in the streets, the smell of fuel from the kerosene heater at home, being able to heat bread on the heater in the morning, the fresh yoghurt. I loved all these little things.”
Nour also fell in love in Iraq when she met Malath. The two got married two years later and decided to stay.
She took on raising her children as a fulltime job, but wanted to use her extra time productively to help her community in Ainkawa, Erbil Governorate – a predominantly Christian neighbourhood which sheltered a significant number of Syrian refugees. With the start of the ISIL conflict in 2014, Ainkawa sheltered even more internally displaced persons leaving the neighbouring Ninewa Governorate.
“There were so many refugees and displaced women here, sitting at home with no in come and nothing to do to get them out of their dark thoughts,’’ Nour explained. ‘’So my mom came up with the idea of starting a sewing project. She had the skills to train the women and I had the time to run the project. A local church also supported us with a small space to set up the workshop.”
“It was always my dream to start a sewing factory where women work and take charge of the project. Women have always been my target: I know that when a woman is happy, it will reflect well on her family, work and behaviour,” Insaf added.
The "Hopeful Hands" sewing factory started thanks to the dedication of Nour and Insaf, the small space they were given in the church, and second-hand sewing machines. Insaf started training the women to measure, cut, sew, overlock, iron and package, while Nour ran the factory.
On the first day, two women signed up; by the end of the first two weeks there were 20 participants. The women are between the ages of 16 and 65. Some are married, others are single, and they come from different backgrounds – Christians, Muslims, Arabs, Kurds and Assyrians. But all of them have the same objective: to support their families.
Hopeful Hands has now moved out of the church and rented its own space. IOM, the UN Migration Agency, has equipped the workshop with eight new sewing machines, 60 pairs of scissors, a brand new cutting table, a generator, packaging bags, and 40 rolls of fabric. “With all this new equipment, we are now able to produce 50 sheets per day instead of 15,” Nour revealed.
“I work as a volunteer here and I am putting all my heart into this project because I was a refugee myself and have lived this process. So for me it is important to see the project grow and expand," she added.
Of the 29 women working at the factory, 17 are Syrian refugees. Flora is one of them.
“My husband is unemployed and I am the only one working,’’ Flora said. ‘’I learned about this sewing factory through some friends and I was very interested. I quickly learned to sew after a two-week training and I’m really good at it. In the factory I feel that I am a human being who can work, be productive and make a difference in my family’s life.’’
Hopeful Hands mainly produces bed sheets, but the women also make bags, covers and pillows, as well as custom-made items. The factory was named Hopeful Hands because these women all “work with their hands and are hoping for a better future, better life, better career and better country,” Nour explained.
“People tell me that I could get a good job because of my experience. But I tell them that if I leave the factory, 29 ladies would have to stay home."
The women work at the factory five days a week that allows them to support their families. They are also sewing a life together, in which they feel like one big-family despite their diverse backgrounds. They work together as one, supporting each other at all times and sharing their joys as well as their sorrows.