THE STORY OF GULJIN
Guljin Sharif Aziz twirls around to show off a floor-length, red and white dress with full sleeves and a sweetheart neckline, fitted over a sparkly silver sheath. She smiles proudly. The dress is her own creation and an example of her skills as a designer and seamstress.
Guljin is originally from Qamishli, northern Syria, but now lives in a refugee camp in Akre, northern Iraq. With the help of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) she has established her own business, designing and making clothing.
Guljin was first drawn to sewing because of the machine, not the fashions. As a child, she was fascinated by machinery, finding out how they worked and how to repair them. Her father bought the family a sewing machine when she was eight and Guljin loved to take it apart and put it back together. So when her mother told her to pick a trade to learn, she quickly chose sewing. “I was more interested in using the machine than making clothes,” she recalled.
Her love of figuring out how things worked evolved into fashion as she learned how clothing was made and how designs come together. “I was all the time looking at fabric and dresses to know how to make them,” she said.
Guljin left Syria on April 20, 2013, two years after the conflict broke out. She and her brother went to Duhok to visit a sister who was married and had been living in the northern Iraqi city for years. They traveled with the plan of not returning. Guljin, her brother, and his wife and children were settled in Akre camp in central Akre, a former military barracks built during the time of Saddam Hussein.
Guljin worked what odd jobs she could to help support her and her brother’s family and save up to buy a sewing machine. She had a job at a hospital for 10 months. She worked a few months at a mall in Akre and then at another market.
She was living with her brother and his family, but it was a cramped space. The family quarreled with everyone living on top of each other. Two years ago, the camp management were able to offer Guljin a room of her own where she finally had some space. But then the coronavirus pandemic hit and she was unable to work under lockdown restrictions.
With no job and no money, Guljin was completely dependent on small support payments from the government and aid organizations. “I would die for one dinar,” she said.
It was a difficult year until she was given the chance to take a UNIDO entrepreneurial training course. She had been living as a refugee for more than seven years, and this was the first opportunity she had to envision a future for herself.
“My goal in registering in the UNIDO training course was to receive anything related to sewing - an iron, sewing kit, machine,” said Guljin. She knew she had the skills to make a successful business, she just needed a bit of support.
The training course in December was a 15-day long programme, funded by the Austrian Development Agency, teaching a group of 15 Syrian refugees how to strategize and assess market needs and basic financial management with the goal of running their own small businesses.
At the end of the programme, they received some assistance in the form of equipment for their new business. Guljin was given two sewing machines, one does specialized stitching, an iron and ironing board, a table, and equipment like scissors and thread. “Everything I received, I love it so much,” she said beaming.
The business is finally giving her some financial security. “I am okay with what I make. I cover my daily expenses,” she said.
She works out of her home - a single room with an attached kitchen and bathroom. Mats lie on the floor, against the wall. A sewing machine has pride of place just inside the door. Works-in-progress hang near the window and colourful swathes of fabric are draped on a wall.
Guljin’s customers are her fellow camp residents. There are just over a thousand people living in the camp. She sews everyday dresses, special occasion outfits, shirts, pants, and even curtains. She designs each individual item based on what her customer wants. Some people ask for simple items, some want traditional Kurdish designs, and others want trendy outfits. Guljin follows what is fashionable and can make them all. One customer wanted matching dresses for her and her daughter - bright pink creations. Many come back again and again.
“They love my work,” she said, beaming with pride as she disappears around the corner to change and model another one of her designs. This dress is a patterned green, with a scoop neck and butterfly sleeves.