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In Iraq, Refugees Rebuild Their Lives by Starting Small Businesses

With her NGO, the Sisterhood Collective, Jessica Courtney grants funding to women living in refugee and IDP camps in Iraq so they can start up their own small businesses and support their families, even if aid dries up.

Written by Alexandra Bradford Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Jessica Courtney, left, founded the Sisterhood Collective to help women in Iraq’s refugee and IDP camps start their own small businesses. Christine Anderson

It was a young Iraqi girl with a heart defect who, in 2006, changed the path of Jessica Courtney’s life. Courtney’s husband, Jeremy, had spent much of that year working alongside an NGO in Iraq. While there, Jeremy was introduced to a man with a young daughter, around seven years old, who was in desperate need of lifesaving heart surgery. When Jeremy returned home to Texas and told his wife about the young girl, Courtney decided they needed to do something to help the family. So they started to raise funds for the surgery.

In the end, the Courtneys were able to raise $5,000, which paid to send the girl to Israel and took care of half of the surgery costs, while a partnering hospital donated its services to cover the remaining fees.

Realizing that the young girl was just one of hundreds of children in need of similar treatment in Iraq, the Courtneys felt they had to do more. In 2007, they packed up their home and moved their family, including their 18-month-old daughter, to the Iraqi town of Sulaymaniyah. There, they formed the Preemptive Love Coalition, an organization to provide heart surgery to children in Iraq.

Then in 2013, the so-called Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS) took over Raqqa, in northern Syria. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians were forced to flee into Iraq, into refugee camps and camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). Courtney watched as the safe areas surrounding her home filled with Syrian refugees and IDPs, and in 2014 she realized the Preemptive Love Coalition needed to expand its work beyond health services and start providing aid – but aid that would allow for sustainable development.

Courtney began meeting with the women who lived in the camps. She found that they wanted to work to provide for their families, but most had never had jobs before. So, Courtney developed the Sisterhood Collective, an arm of the Preemptive Love Coalition that gives refugee women grants ranging from $100 to $1,500 so they can start small businesses in the camps. Last year, the Sisterhood Collective helped 51 women start businesses; this year, it hopes to help 400 more.

Women & Girls spoke with Courtney about the importance of adaptability and the trouble with training.

Women & Girls: How do the women decide what types of business to start?

Jessica Courtney: Fortunately, I lived in Iraq for eight years before I started the Sisterhood Collective, so I can speak the local language. I personally sit down with these women and ask them their stories and talk to them about the type of job they want.

One woman came to me and told me that she needed a sewing machine. I told her that I would put her name down on a waiting list – but that there were 60 women ahead of her on the list. She thought about what else she could do. She walked through the IDP camp and realized that no one in their area was selling the common electrical supplies people needed inside their tents. So, ultimately, she decided to start a small electronics store.

Women & Girls: How do the women get their inventory?

Courtney: We go with them to the local bazaar and we purchase the products they need alongside them. They know how much money they have to spend, and get to be a part of the selection process. This woman and her husband didn’t know a lot about electricity … so we took them to an electrician’s shop and he taught us what the products should be selling for in their shop.

Women & Girls: Do you provide training for the women?

Courtney: We try to do as little training as possible, because what we have found is that … if we just enable them to use the skills that they already have, then they come to success a lot faster than they would if they were learning something new.

Our goal from the very beginning is that we are helping women create businesses they can run themselves, because you never know when an NGO is going to be asked to leave, or the conflict gets worse and all of the expats end up leaving.

Women & Girls: How many women continue on with their businesses after the initial inventory you help them purchase has been sold?

Courtney: From the past year … there was only one woman who closed down her business and is no longer working. There are some who are no longer doing the business they originally started with us, but they took the money from their original business and reinvested it into a new business. For example, we have women who started knitting but found that knitting was good to sell only during the wintertime. So they reinvested [their earnings] into products that would sell during the warmer months, like shoes.

Women & Girls: Do you think these women are going to be able to support themselves in these businesses once they leave the refugee and IDP camps?

Courtney: For a lot of these people, going home seems like a very distant dream because their towns have been demolished. If they can move back, the skills they have further developed will be able to help them. We do not invest in brick and mortar, so everything we purchase for them can be taken with them.

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