Saturday, December 31, 2011

Thanks for coming along...

What a heck of year it is has been.  The terrorist attack in Norway that deeply affected me personally, the world economy that affects each and every one of us.  In Armenia, domestic violence, environmental issues, deaths of young Armenians in the military and the usual discussions of corruption, nepotism and oligarchs and a visit by the Norwegian foreign minister.  Hectic.  In the middle of all this, I have kept myself positively busy with Homeland Handicrafts.  It has been my savior, my life jacket in choppy seas.

Hours and hours in the car, thoughts to myself, getting out to the far reaches of Armenia.  Coffee, lots of coffee, and those that know me best know that I love a chicken kebab in lavash, with ketchup and onion.

It is those individuals that I meet in those villages that keep me going.  Good, warm, humorous, decent, hardworking people who only need a chance to show what they are capable of.  Thanks to Mariam, Hasmik, Gohar, Robert, Nver, Ashot, Nune, Anahit, Seda, Tamara, David, Lilit, Knarik, Satik and all the others that I have been introduced to during the year.

So, let's see where 2012 takes us.  Vartenis with applique work, Gyumri with beadwork, and maybe Talin with I'm not sure what.

Thanks for coming along, either as a producer, a customer, a donor, a cheerleader.

You all make it possible!

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

This night...

...a lot of kids like these, both in Armenia and abroad ...

will receive a bunch of things like these... 

 which will provide income for women like these.. they can provide a better life for kids like this one..

That is what Homeland Handicrafts is all about.

May peace be with your every step

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Fair Wage for a Fair Day's Work

It is sometimes astonishing what a difference a couple of days can make.  

Just yesterday it struck me that perhaps it was time to re-launch a series of exquisitely embroidered cushion covers from the villages of Vayots Dzor.  We worked intensively last year on the development of these items after being told a story that borders on modern day slavery.  The women in these villages are known for the high quality of their embroidery, their accuracy.  And, the women have only a garden and perhaps a beehive from which to create income.  That is why Turks in the business of high priced cushion covers and wall hangings regularly send their Armenian representatives to these particular villages and ask the women to fully embroider large pieces of cloth- because the quality is good, and the women have no other choice.  For a piece of cloth the size of a table runner taking two months to embroider, they receive about USD 50, much less than minimum wage in Armenia.  The finished pieces are shipped to Turkey and sold at exorbitant prices.

This is not about the Armenian-Turkish relationship.  This is about paying a woman a fair wage for a fair day's work.

So we set about asking the women to embroider a much smaller swatch of cloth, and framing it in a nice piece of fabric to match a rich looking cushion cover.  They made a few of them, but the market didn't want them for some reason.  Expectations were not fulfilled, so we put these products to the side for a year.

Then yesterday I brought them out again.  And tonight I have orders for nine cushions from warm-hearted people who know a quality product when they see one.

So tomorrow morning I start breathing new life into those products-because these women deserve it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Bags Are Packed...

The bags are packed, two fairs ahead of us this weekend.  The Dzmer Pap runs tomorrow, and the International Womens Club annual charity bazaar is on Sunday.  Christmas is upon us!  In the boxes in bags at my feet as I write this are lots of goodies.  Many of the animals from Goris, the santas and snowmen from Kapan and the coasters from Chinchin have already been spoken for, so it promises well.  All of the remaining plum jam from Berd has been put to the side for a woman who in panic wrote to me saying she couldn't come to the fairs, so please please lock it away at home for her!  Done.

To think that a year ago we had just started.  Homeland Handicrafts was in its infancy(and in many ways, still is!).  Still, when I think of the fact that we went to a handful of employed women at this time last year to perhaps up towards 60 today, we have to be happy with the results.  The teddy bears from Berd are almost about to be IPOed(just kidding, but big plans are sailing up!), and the crocheted animals from Goris are in more demand than they can produce.  Chinchin, a village almost nobody every heard of just a couple months back is now on the map- the home of three wonderful things:  Fab handcrafted coasters with a gaggle of determined women behind them, an incredible view out over the mountain tops from the edge of town, and a young determined woman by the name of Mariam Yesayan, whom without we never would have set foot in Chinchin.  The House of Hope and Faith in Kapan is churning out those cute little santas and snowmen this year, too, and has added a dragon, next year's Chinese symbol.

Disappointments we have had.  Meghri has proven a tougher job to get things on their feet than we thought.  Sevan and Noyemberian the same.  Though some of the issues of why it didn't take off are based on the people involved, the biggest issue has been finding the right product that the market wants. The will to work is in all of these places.

The commercial contacts are starting to come.  A major telephone company has asked us to locate producers for items they will use in marketing- by the thousands.  An exporter has asked me to put them in contact with talented crocheters and knitters for her clothing collection, so the ladies of Noyemberian and Chinchin have a positive challenge in front of them for next year.  Diasporan visitors to Armenia have asked me to take them to our producer groups to see if they can have their product ideas developed her, in Armenia.  Good friends in Philadelphia, Boston and LA are clamoring for more products.  The ball is starting to roll, and roll quickly.

The goal for Homeland Handicrafts still stands:  500 jobs in 5 years.  We are 18 months in, and have 60 of those created. We can make it.  Berd will increase dramatically in the next months, it seems, and Kapan might as well.  Chinchin should develop nicely, too.

And more and more villages and towns want us to come have a look-  Vartenis up by Lake Sevan, Gyumri, and a group of Armenian-Iraqi refugees near Yerevan, just to name a few.  There is no lack of women wanting to work.  We just need to keep plugging away at getting the word out.

The bags are packed, let's go create some jobs!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bowl Me Over

Sometimes I get blown away.

I went to the Yerevan StartUp Mixer a couple weeks back, and met a room chock full of smart, savvy, techie young people- the next generation of Armenian IT ground breakers.

In the midst of all the riveting techie start-up discussion Al Eisaian, the man who took the initiative to arrange the mixer, did a shout out on Homeland Handicraft's little knitting start-up in Chinchin.  Techie entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship are two branches of the same tree, he said.  He showed the little CivilNet TV clip of Mariam Yesayan - 18 years old with cerebral palsy in a village of 400 - and her ambition to bring jobs to her village.

And I wondered if these techie kids with the next Facebook in their eyes would care about the plight of a little village on the outer edge of their reality? But they did. They clapped, they asked questions, they were curious.

It was a great day, an inspirational day, that mixer day.

The Tuesday after, when I was already in bed in the evening, an SMS ticked in. It said that a big chunk of the entrance fee collected at the mixer was to be donated to the project in Chinchin. Knock me over with a feather. Great. Wow.....

So, soon I will be going up to Chinchin and help them create a revolving materials fund. They buy yarn and knitting needles and such with the money, make the product, sell the product, and then pay the material cost back into the revolving fund, perhaps with a small interest paid so the fund grows.  This will not be a subsidy, it will be a seed that helps the Chinchin group grow.  With this generous contribution and a bunch of hard work, we will soon see a growing, sustainable, thriving handicrafts organization in Chinchin.

Thanks, Yerevan Start-Uppers, you guys rock.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

We're on to Something

I am in Sri Lanka today.  I will be here for the next three weeks or so.  During breakfast this morning, I got into a conversation with a bright young Sri Lanka law student.  Her name is Selyna, and she is the daughter of the founder of the fair trade company I design products for here- Selyn Exports. Despite the differences in the size(SL 66.000 sq. km.\ AM 30.000), population(SL 21 million\ AM 3 million), and history of the two countries, both Armenia and Sri Lanka are emerging economies.  Both have large emigration rates of workers that send money home.  Both struggle to create jobs at home.  Both have rich handicraft traditions.

Selyna lamented the big projects being done in Sri Lanka, often by large international organizations, saying that they are not sustainable due to a lack of local mental ownership of them- somebody rich from the outside comes and plops a project down in a village and leaves.  She pointed out a particular project where large sums of money were put into building a coconut fiber processing plant, while no plan was made for the electrical line to the plant, or how the electricity being used was to be paid.  That plant stands unused today, with the villagers there waiting for someone else from the outside to come along and pick up the pieces.  She said that Selyn, in contrast, is doing it right- privately owned, building on the weaving and sewing skills of the average village woman to make the product, while Selyn itself does the designing and marketing of them- at the same time guaranteeing a reasonable wage and decent working conditions to the women who make the products.  And they employ well over 400 women.

And I thought about Homeland Handicrafts.  We don't go into a village in Armenia with big promises, we go in with a product idea or two, and see if we can find the entrepreneurs.  We build on the skills the women have.  We do the marketing, and hope that a businessman or woman in the U.S., France, Russia or Australia will pick up on the idea, and work commercially with the groups we have created.  We don't make factories, we make groups of women who want to work. 

Armenia doesn't need big bucks projects, it needs lots of small ones.  And it doesn't need brilliant new ideas, it needs bodies on the ground to implement them.

I am in the process of developing a talk where I look into the importance of small and medium enterprises(SMEs) in other developing countries like Guatemala, Kenya and India -and yes, Sri Lanka- and take a look at the importance of products like teddy bears, crocheted animals and other handicrafts as a percentage of the total economy, and then at how many jobs for women have been created through handicrafts in those countries as a percentage of the total population.  I hope to be surprised.

If they can create thousands upon thousands of jobs for women through handicrafts, well then so can Armenia.  And this at a time when the world is tired of factory-made products, and wants the authentic, the hand made.

I think we're on to something, Selyna and I.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Charge My Batteries, Feed My Soul

I had one of those evenings yesterday that reaffirms my belief in the human spirit, the human will to do good. Pretty numb and tired after a (very fruitful) visit by the Norwegian foreign minister, I was asked by my friend Jussi in Norway to send as many as possible of our teddy bears from Berd and crocheted animals from Goris to Norway as soon as possible. But how?

Ann the psychiatrist who traveled with me to Shamshadin was due to fly home to Oslo next week, so I decided to try to get ahold of her...but have no number to her. An SMS arrives, asking me if I could join a group of Norwegians in town for the launch of a clean hydropower project for dinner. Am exhausted, but these are quality people, and it just might be the chance to get those teddies and animals to Norway. At the restaurant, Ann is there(Yerevan is a small town, Norwegians find each other) and the group pounces on both the teddies and animals, and within a few minutes, seven of the 13 teddies I had brought were sold, and every single one of the crocheted animals, too. All I had to do is explain that they are hand made by women in villages in Armenia, and they were snapped up.

Then they cheerfully insisted on transporting the balance six teddies to poor Jussi in Norway who wanted all those items, but will end up with just a few!

It is not the first time I have met spontaneous, honest, enthusiastic interest in the products that Homeland Handicrafts develops and the women behind them. Three or four times this summer in Yerevan the same thing happened- a group of Americans once, a group of Dutch with some Russians mixed in another time, and now the Norwegians. And then there are the great folks in Philly, Boston and LA who also are doing their best to promote what we do, and not from a profit motive, but from the bottom of their hearts. The ladies in Berd and Goris just can't keep up with the demand, so slowly more and more women are being added- jobs created.

Each decent person just wants to do good, to contribute in a positive way, given the opportunity to do so in a practical way. That principle was proven again last night.

Such spontaneous acts of genuine generosity charge my batteries, feed my soul.


We have only just begun!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Small Things

On Thursday I was up in Shamshadin again.

This time I took Ann, a Norwegian psychiatrist and Al, an American Armenian with me.  Al had been touched by my interview with Mariam Yesayan in Chinchin, and wanted to meet her.  But as we rolled into the village I thought I would take them up to the 'top of the world' in a park outside of Chinchin.  There they were blown away by the panorama view, the beauty of the rough nature, and the purity of the air. Al has found his new yoga place.

And then to the Yesayan house, where the knitting women came in and presented their wares- over 100 snowflake coasters in a range of colors.  Al had ordered a bunch of them, and paid the women then and there.  Their faces were precious as they saw the cash lay on the table.  Smiles ear to ear.  They had earned money for the first time in a long time- hard earned and sorely needed money.  Hasmik and Lilit leaned over the table, eager to show a better suggestion on how to finish the edges of the coasters so they wouldn't curl so much.  They chattered away, flush with the excitement of a new situation in Chinchin.  It was the strength of these women, combined with a wonderful Shamshadin sense of humor that impressed Al and Ann, and always impresses me.  Ann got caught up in the positiveness of it all, and ordered 50 coasters as Christmas gifts on the spot.  The women cackled in excitement- Do we have enough yarn?  When do you need them? 

After a fabulous village snack of fresh bread, pickles and home made cheese, we rolled full of impressions out of Chinchin towards Nerkin Karmiraghbyur.  I had interviewed a young man there named Vardan a few weeks earlier on, so I tried to call him to say we were coming.  But he didn't answer- hadn't answered for the past few days.  That probably means he is at the front line as a hired soldier.  Hope he is safe.

On to Berd, we visit the ladies of the Berd Womens Resource Center, and Tamara and Seda as always are knitting away, bear body parts strewn across the table, waiting for assembly.  They had five more bears ready for us.  We talked about the future, about how to increase production, lower prices, export, make these beautiful little creatures into a thriving business.  Seeds were planted.  They need nourishment to grow, but it will come.

Rushing home on the Berd-Chambarak road, we cannot see more than ten meters in front of us due to thick fog.  Nothing of the fantastic view on the left side of the road for about 50 kilometers is visible.  Oh well, at least the tree poachers were also kept off that road- a few trees saved today, maybe.  And so home to Yerevan.

These trips are so important to me.  They make me physically tired, but spiritually happy.  Al and Ann and all the others that have joined me on trips to Shamshadin will remember them- Mariam, Hasmik, Lilit, Vardan, Anahit, Seda, Tamara and all those other women up in our beloved Shamshadin.

But in addition to these great people, I will remember the small things, like this little flower at 'the top of the world' in Chinchin.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Not So Creepy Critters

A couple months ago I was contacted by Karine Grigoryan, president of Agate NGO in Gyumri.  Karine has cerebral palsy, but that isn't holding her back.  Her limitless optimism and energy shined through on her very first message to me on Facebook.  She wanted to work with Homeland Handicrafts, and nothing was going to stop her.  I knew that Karine and I would get along famously because when I asked her to SMS me rather than call me due to a hearing impairment I have, she said that it was no problem as her own impairment prevents her from speaking clearly in the phone.

What a perfectly functional match we are!

I asked Karine to send me photos of what they make already, a normal first step.  The photos came, and were as expected- products that I have seen many times before, definitely nothing that will be appreciated as new in the market, nothing that I thought I could have an success in marketing.  We needed to come up with something new. 

I do not believe in sympathy purchases - a 'poor them' purchase.  I want people to buy Homeland Handicraft's products because they are exciting, new, interesting, quality products, good products for the money.  That is where sustainability will come from for Karine and Agate NGO- not sympathy for their impairments, but appreciation for their products, their talent and their hard work.

I noticed a beaded tree among the photos.  A large tree, very intricate, certainly haven taken many many hours to make and therefore expensive- not sale-able.  But the beading technique was what caught my eye.  I suggested to Karine that we focus on that technique, but make new, different, eye-catching items.

Thus, this queen ant.

And spiders.

And scorpions.

It takes a special person to appreciate these not so creepy critters.  Are you one of them?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Crocheted Elephant, Anyone?

When you believe in a cause, there is no such thing as down time, days off, or 'can't be bothered' moods.  Today is Saturday in Yerevan, a day of the week that has become one of my most important days for delivering the Homeland Handicrafts message:  Jobs for women.  Jobs in the regions.  Jobs based on existing skills, techniques and materials.  Jobs through handicrafts.

And today was a good one.  Generous people, good people met with me to help me spread the joy.  Narek from Yerevan picked up his two hand-crocheted elephants from the Goris.  Adrineh from Canada, living in Yerevan picked up two half liter jars of jams and butter from Berd and a wooden bowl from Goris.  Marie from San Fransisco, a frequent visitor to Yerevan(and miraculously enough born and raised in an Ohio town not far from the one I grew up in) picked up three teddy bears and a bear shoulder bag from Berd as well as 40 Armenian heart magnet party favors from Kapan.  Then Sara from ArmeniaNow interviewed me about Homeland Handicrafts, with focus on the teddy bear project in Berd.

A good day indeed.

I never dwell on the amount of money that has come in to the women.  I prefer to look at the number of working hours the purchases represent.  Today's sales represent about 165 working hours in total, or about one month's work for one woman.  Now, these hours were spread over Berd, Goris and Kapan.  But still, maybe a winter coat or a month of gas heating for a household was paid for today- not through charity, but through the skills of these hard-working women.  A small, yet significant victory.

And just now, an SMS arrived from Ursula saying that she wants two sets of six of the Armenian fruit coasters from Chinchin.  That will be our first little success with actually selling those coasters- the first little piece of work created in a new village.  Nine hours of work, for Chinchin.  Thanks, Ursula!

The day is young.  Crocheted elephant, anyone?

Friday, October 28, 2011

By the Hair of Their Chinny Chinchin

I thought we had it all planned out- arrival at 11, meet Arev- the newly designated leader of the knitting women in Chinchin- at the school.  There was quality to control, there was knitting needles and yarn to distribute.  A phone call to Arev the day before was not entirely understood by her or me, but the assumption was that that was the plan.  It's like that in Armenia.  You think it is all planned, but it never turns out that way.

We arrived on time.  The school was open, but empty.  We were puzzled, and couldn't figure out who to meet or where- what had gone wrong?  An umbrella in the corner of the entryway told us somebody was in the school building.  We went from door to door until we heard a voice in a room at the end of the hallway upstairs.  Two ladies are in the room, huddled around a wood stove.  'School holiday today' we were told, the occasion not quite clear.  And where is Arev, I ask?  'She is in Idjevan'- no further explanation to be had.  Clearly, my phone call to her had gone all wrong.  I explain that I am here to collect Armenian fruit coasters, as if that was supposed to make any sense.  But indeed, one of them puts on her coat and goes out.  Ten minutes later, after we have been served freshly sliced apples by the woman who stayed behind, the woman who went out comes back.  Not a word of explanation.  We ask 'and?'.  'Klini' is the answer, 'shall be'.

In the next 10 or so minutes, a parade of women excitedly arrive.  The first one with six pomegranate coasters, the next with six cherries, then another with six apples, then six orange-looking peaches, then the watermelons and pears.  The strawberries are not quite ready, I am told.  They eagerly show their work, and wait for my response- the 'shat lav's shower down on them.  One young woman seems upset.  She shows me a half-finished apricot coaster, and unhappily explains that they only have three pairs of knitting needles in Chinchin, and that she only got a hold of one of those pairs yesterday.  No problem, I say,  no stress. She shows me an orange apricot with a black line down it.  I say sorry, I would like an apricot that is two thirds yellow and one third orange, with no black line please.  She firmly disagrees- apricots should be two thirds orange and one third yellow.  I choose not to disagree with a determined Chinchin woman.

I pull out the new five sets of knitting needles from my bag of goodies and they distribute them immediately to those that need them.  I strikes me that a pair of knitting needles costs 300 drams- 80 US cents - but in Chinchin, every dram counts as we enter the long hard winter, so they have not invested in any extras, and sent the three pairs they had around the village, taking turns.  Chinchin hangs on by the hair on their chinny Chinchin you might say.

When I pull out the 25 skeins of yarn in a rainbow of different colors to make the snowflake coaster that we already have orders for nearly 150 of, the excitement grows.  I explain how many of each background color are to be made of the snowflake, and they are off... cackling between themselves on who will make which color, they almost forgot I am there.  I try to say goodbye a couple of times, but flush with the excitement of new knitting needles, new orders for coasters, and the very idea that some hub-bub is happening in Chinchin in late October, they are too absorbed in who will make the navy blue and who will make the burgundy to notice that I was leaving.

As we make our way to the car in the burrrrr cold of the Chinchin frost, the strawberry knitter comes running, rosy cheeked and worried that she had missed us.  Her strawberries were beautifully done.  She is happy, and heads into the school to get her slice of the snowflake order.

All is good in Chinchin.  A small start has been made.  But it is the positive energy I will remember, their excitement about being offered work.  I am not sure if it is the money they will earn, or the feeling of having something to do during the long winter season.  But these women do want to work.  They are eager to work.  I will do my very best to give them work.   Because work is not just about food on the table during a long, hard winter.  It is about pride, about allowing them to provide for themselves in a hilly village where the only source of income is potatoes.  It is about the future of their village.  The future of Chinchin.

One coaster at a time.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

If Only for an Hour

Somewhere between the Navoor and Chambarak where the road snakes along the Azeri border, winter laid its grip on the trees and bushes.  It made it easy to leave the stress of city life behind, if only for an hour or so.

A Passion for What You Do....

Just back from another long, demanding, exciting, interesting day in Shamshadin.

The Armenian fruit-themed coasters got picked up from Chinchin.  The ladies there were thrilled with the orders so far for the snowflake patterned coaster, too, and eagerly distributed the yarn and extra knitting needles I had brought with me among themselves.  They got so wrapped up in who was going to make the blue ones, and who the red ones, etc., that they hardly noticed that I said goodbye and sneaked out the door. 

On to Berd, where the ladies had churned out 15 more of their beautiful, high quality teddy bears and a pile of clothing.  They have become a well-oiled teddy bear machine, churning out the teddies and their clothes at a good pace, and are adding new women to the project every couple of weeks.  Customers in Philadelphia, Boston and Los Angeles await!

Home in Yerevan, I reflect..... You don't need a million dollars to make a difference.  You need only to have a passion for what you do, and the guts to take action. 

And I do.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Nerkin Karmiraghbyur - Every Long Journey..

I want this blog to be a window into the villages, the people, the stories behind the goods that Homeland Handicrafts designs and promotes, not just a string of pictures of nice-looking products.  Nerkin Karmiraghbyur, for example, is a seven minute stroll from the border with Azerbaijan in Tavoush marz.  The village's most fertile agricultural fields are right on the border and mined- by the Armenian army, in order to defend the border.  Almost every house in the village took a direct hit by bombs during the war.  The community building, the ruins of which are shown in this picture, was no exception.  Nerkin Karmiraghbyur struggles with the same issues many other villages struggle with- emigration, lack of jobs, etc.  We know that we would need to sell a mountain of magnets, key tags or bookmarks to re-build this building.  Still, every long journey starts with the first step.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

From Our Little Chinchin to the World - Snowflake Coasters for Christmas!

On Thursday, October 27th, we will be making a new trip to Shamshadin to visit two producer groups.  One of them is the very newly formed group of women in the village of Chinchin.  With only about 350 residents and perched on a ridge in a rugged mountainous area, Chinchin is perhaps the most remote of villages that Homeland Handicrafts has ever worked in.  I had planned to launch a series of coasters with Armenian fruit motives, but during our last visit, one of the ladies showed me this one with a snowflake on it.  I loved it, and promptly posted it on Facebook the next day.  By that evening, I had received orders for 138 of them in a variety of colors.  So, Thursday's visit will start with a 'hurra!' for their first success in the market, and then nose to the grinding stone to get quality, size, colors, delivery deadline, labeling, and all those other things that make a finished product under control.  I think they are still in shock up there over the response.  Finally, some light in the tunnel in Chinchin, Shamshadin!

Homeland Handicrafts - The Focus

- women, because they are the backbone of any society, and are higher on the unemployment statistics

- in the regions, because jobs for women are more scarce than in Yerevan

- traditional craft techniques, because Armenian women are talented and experienced at a whole range of craft techniques like knitting, crocheting, weaving, embroidery and more

Why Homeland Handicrafts?

Why Homeland Handicrafts?

Because unemployment in rural Armenia is in the double digits

Because a net of 67.000 reportedly left Armenia during first six months of this year

Because there are talented artisans throughout Armenia who can't find a market for their products

Because handicrafts can provide a stable income for hundreds if not thousands of individuals in Armenia

Because we believe in the future of Armenia

Homeland Handicrafts - join us on our journey!

A little over a year ago a Peace Corps volunteer by the name of Zoe Armstrong asked me why I didn't have a project in Armenia for the creation of jobs through handicrafts, like I work on in Sri Lanka a couple months out of each year.  It was the kick in the pants I needed to start Homeland Handicrafts(HH).  One year and a bit later, we have had volunteers from the USA, Brazil, and Australia working for us, have participated in a half dozen different fairs, and most importantly of all, have about 40 jobs created.  This blog is intended to let you follow us as we make out trips to places like Chinchin, Nerkin Karmiraghbyur and Berd in Shamshadin and Goris and Kapan in Zangezeur, Syunik.  Hang on tight, it's a bumpy ride!