Rita is a 30-year-old girl from a Christian minority of Kirkuk. She is the eldest of her two other siblings. Her father, who she considers as her inspiration for everything she does, was killed in the conflict in 2005 when she was only 15 years of age. Today, her middle sister has gotten married and she is living with her mother and younger sister in the house. These days, what inspires her are her father’s words, “My daughter is equal to 100 men.” From early childhood, her father, who was not only a father for her, but was also a friend, encouraged her to be the strong young woman she is today. He said of her, “She can do whatever she wants as long as she does it rightfully.”
Rita started her career in the media. When the channel was shut down, she worked for a while as an accountant. However, when the ISIL conflict started, she lost that job as well, and an economic crisis fell over Kirkuk. Despite the challenges, Rita was a strong woman, and she did not feel fearful of ISIL at that time. Instead, during the first month that she had to sit at home, she came up with a brilliant idea. One day while she was tidying up her room, she found out that that she had a lot of accessories that she did not like. She started redesigning the pieces and she changed their shapes into something she liked. She excitedly approached her mother and asked her thoughts about selling her reinvented accessories. Her mother giggled at the idea and was concerned about who would buy such a thing at such a time. During those difficult days, the family had to sell house items and other belongings in order to afford essentials. Rita’s mother then asked her what she needed to make the project possible, and she replied that she only required a Facebook platform. Rita was intrigued by handmade items since she was a child. She believed that handmade items are rare and could be a successful business. She started a page on Facebook, displayed her items online, and began selling them. She supported her family with the money she earned from her sales. It was not a 100% return on investment, but it was something to help her family.
Within six months she started to share a store with some friends of hers where she was able to sell her handmade items, cosmetics and gifts. In another six months, she was able to finally open a store of her own. Despite her initial success and her ability to open a store of her own the moment came when Rita felt she needed support. She shared, “It is difficult when you start a project. It is very difficult. You always need support.” She continued, “To add new items, I must take from the profit, or borrow money from others. When I moved to the new store and the store was without air conditioner, I felt that I needed support.”
One day, Rita learned from her community about a project that gave business training and grants to youth in the area. She immediately applied, although deep inside she wondered, after all that she went through with her business for the past four years, what would be the benefit of the business training. However, in July, Rita completed her seventh lesson in the business training, more than halfway through the course, and to her surprise, it was completely opposite to what she had ever imagined. She shared. “If I had (received) such training from the beginning of the project, the project would have made a lot of difference. I benefited a lot from the course.”
During the course, she was encouraged to grow her business and take it to another level. She shared, “I was encouraged to buy credit cards of 40,000 IQD ($33.41 USD) for advertising. Before I was afraid to pay such an amount for an ad, thinking I could use it in another way for the store.” The situation with her page has totally changed for the positive. She started to advertise online and restored her online traffic to her store increasing sales so that all of her products were sold. She started to sell handmade work 100%. Before her handmade work was 25% of the shop. These days, she wants to rearrange her shop and add an interior design and home accessories section. She shared, “We are lucky that the staff (leading the course) is so good that I feel that we are a family. As busy as I am, I free myself for the course because it is something that I love and not something that I am obliged to do.”
Rita faced a new challenge when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. She thought for a moment to stop her business. Nevertheless, she rethought it and reminded herself that she might be an inspiration for other people; if she gave up, then they might stop too. COVID-19 affected her work in a way that she had difficulty paying rent and it was challenging to make deliveries because of the lockdown. From material acquisition, to transportation, to income, every part of her business was affected. However, she again seized the opportunity rather than being defeated by her circumstances and started selling gloves and masks. Her strategy was to cope with the situation and focus more on promoting her shop with online advertisements as she was encouraged to do at the trainings.
Her work is the most important thing in her life. At present, Rita sees her future with Loolia, her brand. She shared, “In the beginning I had some rosy dreams, but the reality is difficult. When I started with the project and the training, I realised that it is possible to register Loolia as an international brand.”
On International Youth Day, she shares a message with youth around the world, “We are an energy, and each one of us is a sun. Let this sun inside you shine and come out. Especially now that we are in a time that needs all the available energy. Don’t standby, and don’t get discouraged. Maybe on this day of the year many of us will be in our homes. Let’s work or work on ourselves to improve ourselves and become a pillar for our homes. The most important thing is to never stop and be an energy.”
Rita is a participant of a project implemented by World Vision and funded by the Church Refugee Engagement Fund, which provides business training and cash assistance to the most vulnerable youth in Kirkuk and Hamdaniya. Started in May 2019, the project targeted 320 youth giving them a chance to improve their skills and livelihood prospects in the long run.