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!