Empowered in Kabul

 

Sulaiman Nasseri helps Afghan women gain independence through embroidery

By Stephen Collins '74
Photography by Heather Perry '93 (portrait)
 

Seema and her husband, Abdul Karim, moved to Kabul from a rural, northern province of Afghanistan, taking their daughters to the city seeking a better life. Despite moving into a quasi slum called Charqala, with no water, electricity, or sewage disposal, their prospects improved when Karim got a job loading freight containers. But for Seema and her three girls the dream turned nightmare when he was killed after a cable snapped. An illiterate peasant housewife single-parenting three children in the mean streets of a war-torn patriarchal society became Seema’s bleak predicament.

Sulaiman Nasseri ’12
Sulaiman Nasseri ’12 works with Afghan women in Kabul who are part of his Projects for Peace initiative. (Submitted photo)

Sulaiman Nasseri ’12 didn’t have those details in mind last year when he applied for a Projects for Peace grant from the Davis Foundation, but the Afghan native knew the general scenario. “Empowering Afghan Women Through Embroidery,” as his project is titled, was pitched as a way to make Afghan women less dependent on men and to provide them with a modest income to get their children off the streets and into schools, keeping them out of the child labor pool and making them less likely recruits for terrorist groups.

Nasseri, a Davis United World College scholar from Kabul, won one of the $10,000 Projects for Peace grants funded by Kathryn Wasserman Davis last spring. She has awarded 100 grants in each of the last five years.

So Nasseri completed his junior year and was in Kabul June 1 recruiting trainees for his project. His plan: to provide women with the training, equipment, and materials necessary to begin home-based embroidery microbusinesses with the goal of improving their status and increasing the literacy and educational attainment of their children. “I strongly believe that this project has the power to rehabilitate and empower families and communities, promoting peace throughout Afghanistan in the long run,” his grant proposal stated.

He proposed three phases and executed all three this summer: market research to see what would sell and where to get materials; two weeks of practical training, using three local women to train six others each in the craft; then production, with each woman working in her own time and space to produce marketable garments. He worked with a local nongovernmental employment agency and tried to select the most eager, most promising, and neediest applicants. His NGO contact advocated for Seema to be one of the trainees.

The pirihan shirt Nasseri was embroidered by women in the program.
The pirihan shirt Nasseri wears was embroidered by women in the program.

Almost all of the women recruited outperformed Nasseri’s expectations, he said. The precision of the minutely detailed hand stitching is impressive, and the demand for the embroidered traditional Afghan pirahan shirts is particularly high in Kabul, Nasseri reports. Thanks to the special skills of one trainer, some women also learned the more colorful, ancient Chinese chinai-dosi stitching, in high demand on women’s clothes and home furnishings often included in dowries, he said.

Seema was one of the success stories, but Nasseri said he didn’t fully appreciate the impact of his project until the first payday. When he handed Seema the money she had earned, she broke down and wept. “I was scared at the beginning,” Nasseri said, having feared the woman felt shortchanged or disappointed. But he misinterpreted the tears. Seema told him: “Now I feel like any other human being. Now, for the first time, I feel I’m worth something,” he said.

Beyond the emotional empowerment, Nasseri points to some hard economic numbers—and he sees the economic piece as essential to Afghanistan’s success. Twenty-one women are working to earn income. Eighty-four immediate family members have precious resources to help them climb out of poverty and vulnerability. Twenty-one Afghan children who would not have had the opportunity, including Seema’s oldest daughter, are now in school. “They are not on the street,” Nasseri said. “They are not child laborers. They will not be targets of bad guys or victims of violence.”

Phil Geier, executive director of the Davis United World Scholars Program, which administers the Projects for Peace competition on 90 campuses, said, “There are a lot of dimensions of this project that fit the program beautifully.” Not all Projects for Peace should or need to be in war-torn locales, but the fact that Nasseri comes from Kabul and is able to navigate the subtleties of doing business there gave his project proposal special resonance. And the level of initiative, drive, and focus that Nasseri displayed was impressive, Geier said.

Nasseri’s initial success fits a pattern among Projects for Peace, Geier said. The grant serves as incubator capital for a small initiative that brings purpose, hope, and prospects for peace to people who desperately need all three. And, with continued commitment, Geier said, it can become a self-sustaining program helping more people as it grows.

Scaling up and sustaining the embroidery initiative are both goals for Nasseri. He intends to turn the project into a nonprofit organization that will offer training, microloans, and hope to additional needy Afghan women.

So, besides classes, homework, and studying for graduate school entrance exams, he’s looking for legal help to get 501C3 status for his initiative, developing a website for the project, designing tags, and trying to sell the shirts on campus to help sustain the effort.

“If people know why we are doing this, they will support the cause,” Nasseri said.

 
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