“We are all able to do these things on a small scale by ourselves. But when we get together, we become that much more powerful,”
As part of the VilCap-Start business accelerator, a collaboration with Social Enterprise @ Goizueta (at Emory University), Village Capital, Refugee Women’s Network, and the Clarkston Community Center, three business owners were selected by their peers to receive $10,000 loans for their business. CDF is sharing profiles of the winners.
Village Life Market
The idea for Naima Abdullahi’s business, Village Life Market, emerged during a fateful trip to Mali in 2011 from a series of encounters she would never forget. Village Life Market works to empower refugee women by helping them produce fabric and jewelry products, then supplying the products to local vendors.
Naima is Oromo, and her family resettled from Ethiopia to the U.S. when she was very young. She meets refugee families daily in her full-time job as a refugee caseworker at the International Rescue Committee. Refugee women would sometimes give her woven skirts and shirts as gifts that she, as a caseworker, was not allowed to accept. But she would notice the intricate stitching, and the beautiful colors and designs.
During her trip to Mali, Naima, who does not speak French, would write or use gestures to communicate. In one small village, she noticed a woman carrying a basket with different kinds of fabric that she was trying to sell. She decided to buy some from her. When she tried to ask how much the fabric would cost, she soon realized that the woman could not read or write.
“I asked myself, ‘How do I help these women make a living?’” she said. “ I have this skill. I can read and write. To put down a thought, to tell a story without physically being there. I couldn’t figure out how to help.”
She purchased a lot of fabric, not knowing at the time how she was going to use it. Then, later in the trip, she was purchasing bananas from an older Malian woman when she noticed that the woman had a child with her.
“The area around the child’s eye was swollen up like a baseball. His eye was hanging out of his head,” she said. “The ground literally shifted underneath me. That is a saying, but that is what it felt like. I used my hands to ask about getting a doctor. She signed that she didn’t have any money.”
Naima knew that she had to help. She came back the next day, found the woman, and rushed the child to a hospital. She paid for his treatment, which saved his life but resulted in him losing his sight.
“I asked myself, ‘Did I really save him?’” she said. “I set him up to be alive in a future that had no hope.” She knew that the child would need continued support.
Upon returning to the U.S., she and her husband Andrew, a musician, organized a fundraiser for the boy. Naima sewed skirts and shirts using the fabric, and together they raised money to send the child to a school for the blind in Mali.
But she didn’t stop after the fundraiser. She enlisted the help of a group of refugee women she had met through her work at the IRC. In a series of brainstorming sessions with her husband, they came up with the idea to form a business. She named it Village Life Market after the feeling of community she experienced in the Malian village where she first purchased fabrics.
The VilCap entrepreneurship program, she said, has validated that her business idea could become something great. By bringing together the skills and resources of individuals in her refugee community, she says she is working to empower her entire community.
“We are all able to do these things on a small scale by ourselves. But when we get together, we become that much more powerful,” she said.
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