x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Afghan women’s magic carpet company

Abu Dhabi-based enterprise is helping to provide well-paid jobs, health care and educate 20,000 previously impoverished Afghan residents, mostly women and children, who had been scraping by amid the crippling poverty and unemployment in the country.

Walied and Maywand Jabarkhyl at the Fatima bint Mohammed bin Zayed Initiative showroom in Dubai this week. Their father proposed investing in Afghan women 10 years ago. Sarah Dea / The National
Walied and Maywand Jabarkhyl at the Fatima bint Mohammed bin Zayed Initiative showroom in Dubai this week. Their father proposed investing in Afghan women 10 years ago. Sarah Dea / The National

Among the sketching robots, jewel-encrusted monkeys and furniture that has been burnt to an aesthetically pleasing crisp, one exhibit at this year’s Design Days Dubai appeals to the collectors’ conscience as much as their sense of style.

In selling handmade Afghan carpets and rugs, FBMI, the Fatima bint Mohammed bin Zayed Initiative, weaves traditional craft skills, social enterprise and community activism together to support more than 20,000 Afghans, most of whom are women and children and all in dire need of money and work.

Poverty and unemployment are crippling in Afghanistan. In 2008-2009 it was estimated that 36 per cent of the population lived below the poverty line, and in 2007-2008 the European Union-funded national risk and vulnerability assessment found 7.4 million people – nearly a third of the population – were unable to secure enough food to live active, healthy lives.

As the full name suggests, FBMI is an Abu Dhabi enterprise launched by an Afghan company, Tanweer Investments, in June 2010 under the patronage of Sheikha Fatima bint Mohammed, daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

“I was moved by the plight of the Afghan people who have suffered so long, not least the women,” Sheikha Fatima explained. “The numbers are staggering: with a lifespan of only 44 years, infant mortality over 25 per cent and widespread poverty, I was reminded of how blessed we are in this country and wanted to contribute in whatever way I could.”

Maywand Jabarkhyl, the executive director of FBMI, said: “It’s a really interesting project. Two families have come together, us and the Al Nahyans, and we’re doing humanitarian work to really make a difference.”

The initiative was the brainchild of Maywand’s father, Dawood Jabarkhyl, an entrepreneur from Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan who was forced to flee the country with his wife and eldest son in 1984.

“We had to leave because of the Soviet invasion,” Mr Jabarkhyl explained. “The Russians were arresting everybody who was educated or who belonged to the existing hierarchy. We had no choice but to leave.”

The Jabarkhyl family spent the following 20 years in exile in the United Kingdom, where three of Mr Jabarkhyl’s sons were born, including 27-year-old Maywand.

It was during this time that Dawood Jabarkhyl got involved in the carpet business, establishing the Oriental Carpet Centre in Finsbury Park. It was also the time when Maywand and his elder brother Walied, who also works as an executive director of FBMI, first started to learn about carpets and rugs.

“Carpets are part of our culture, they are part of our way of life,” Maywand explained in his unmistakable North London accent.

“I literally grew up in the warehouse, jumping on the carpets, and I even went on trips with him around the UK. My father would travel around all of the smaller towns and villages in the United Kingdom in a van. He’d find small carpet shops in places like North Wales, Penzance, St Andrews, and they would buy his carpets from him.”

When Dawood returned to Afghanistan soon after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 his homecoming came as something as a shock.

“When I returned to Kabul the city was unrecognisable as a city. It had been destroyed completely by the civil war, there was no infrastructure, it was basically a disaster zone.”

Dawood’s early ventures on his return to Afghanistan were in telecommunications – he helped to establish the country’s third private mobile telecommunications company in 2006 – but it was while he was travelling on a series of high-level business delegations with the Afghan president Hamid Kharzai that he first had the idea for the project that became FBMI.

At a conference in London six years ago, he met Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Ali Al Shamsi, the UAE ambassador to Pakistan and Afghanistan. “We talked about how to help the Afghan people and how the Afghan government might use one of their biggest exports, which is carpets.

“When I proposed that we wanted to help the women of Afghanistan, it was not as a charity but as an investment in the women and in the country,” Dawood said.

“Believe me, I have travelled through the villages of Afghanistan and none of the women ask for charity, they always ask for work. You cannot rebuild a country with charity. You have to have investment.”

Four years later, FBMI was established and by the end of 2010 was directly employing 2,700 Afghans, 70 per cent of whom were women. The FBMI now runs two production centres in Kabul and Jalalabad and Dawood estimates that when the families of those who work for the initiative are taken into consideration, the project indirectly supports more than 20,000 Afghans, many living in refugee camps near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan.

Fatima Kozimi is one of those employees, as are her daughters Mansoura, 18, and Sabera, 17. They work together, weaving as a team, producing 10 to 15 centimetres of carpet each day.

“Weaving is a profession in my family and my tribe,” said the 40-year-old from the Hazara tribal areas around Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.

Traditionally, Afghan carpets were made in the ethnically Turkmen areas in the north of the country but during the civil war the Hazara also became skilled in weaving.

“I went to primary school but we had no access to education after that because of the civil war. I learnt to weave from my parents, they wove at home and weaving was the only way to make a living.”

Mrs Kozimi has lived in Kabul for 10 years, not far from FBMI’s Afghan headquarters at the edge of the city, near the Bagh-e-Bala, the summer palace of the 19th century emir, Abdur Rahman Khan. Along with her daughters and husband, she is responsible for supporting the nine members of her immediate family. She has worked for FBMI for three-and-a-half years.

“Before I was working for another carpet company, but I wasn’t being paid on time and I was being paid in Pakistani rupees. FBMI pays us 4,000 to 5,000 Afghanis [Dh250-320] per square metre, that’s double what I was receiving before.”

Another major factor in Mrs Kozimi’s decision to change employers was the benefits FBMI provides. Employees are required to sign an undertaking to participate in the initiative’s healthcare programme, which includes monthly health checks, and to ensure that all children – boys and girls – under the age of 15 attend school. There are more than 7,000 children enrolled through FBMI and in addition, all adult women receive regular training in health and hygiene, literacy and numeracy.

Unfortunately, such measures have not allowed Mrs Kozimi’s daughters to follow other paths than carpet weaving.

“I tried at first to send my children to school because I wanted them to be educated, but unfortunately weaving is the only source of income for our family, so when my daughters were old enough I taught them how to weave.”

This is a year of uncertainty for Afghanistan, with questions about the imminent presidential election and the United State’s troop presence after the end of this year. Despite this Mrs Kozimi remains cautiously optimistic.

“I hope for a better future. I want a peaceful life, I want employment and I want to continue doing this so that I can change my life and be hopeful for my children and the future.”

Whatever the future holds, Dawood Jabarkhyl is determined that he will not leave Afghanistan for a second time.

“It is true, the Taliban are fighting with the government and with the Americans. There is war in Afghanistan, but we have made a commitment, not just me but my family as well, to help the women of Afghanistan with our UAE investors that we have.

“For that reason, whether its war or not, we will stay here on the ground and work for the people of Afghanistan.”

nleech@thenational.ae

FBMI has a stand at Design Days Dubai, which runs until March 21, and a permanent showroom in Dubai on Jumeirah Beach Road, opposite the Burj Al Arab.