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The story behind the first female-owned, "women's-only" plant nursery in Jalawla, Iraq

Zainab tends to her flowers in the first women’s-only plant nursery in Jalawla, Iraq. Photo: Dalia Ahmed/Oxfam

After ISIS destroyed her home and nursery, Oxfam helped Zainab regrow and expand her business. She became the first woman in her town to sell plants at the market.  

Growing up in Iraq, Zainab had an unusual hobby.

“I used to read agricultural magazines and cut and stick pictures in my notebook until I had my own agricultural folder,” she says. “It was my childhood dream to have a nursery.”

She carried that passion with her into adulthood. With the support of her husband, Akram, she opened a nursery at the side of her house in December 2015.

Unfortunately, she only had a short time to enjoy the fruits of her labor. Just one week after opening, ISIS took control of Jalawla. Zainab, like so many others, fled with her husband and daughter, abandoning her fledgling business.

‘’ISIS stole my dream from me,” she reflects. “I know that most mothers who have fled their homes miss their family photo albums, but I missed my agricultural folder; it was so special to me. Now it’s gone.”

Putting down roots—again

When Zainab and her family returned to Jalawla in October 2017, their home and businesses were destroyed. The main market in Jalawla had been set on fire and burned down, and houses had been looted and damaged. Everything Zainab remembered looked completely different.

One thing remained the same—her motivation to open and run a plant nursery. She enrolled in an income-generation project run by Oxfam and funded by the United Nations Development Programme, which distributed $575 grants to 235 people—more than half were women—to relaunch their businesses. This time around, Zainab decided that since Jalawla is traditionally a conservative town, it would be a good business opportunity to open a "women's-only" nursery. "When my female customers saw the sign outside saying 'only for females,' they were very happy," she says.

Zainab presses down the soil to pot a new plant. Kalar Dahmed/Oxfam

And her enterprising spirit is starting to rub off on other women in town. Zainab is grateful for the opportunity to start over. “When I came back after being displaced, I didn’t find anything. I didn’t have even one dollar to buy small flower pots,” she recalls. “Thanks to Oxfam, I’m now on the right track to fulfill my dream and to expand my business.”

“After the women in Jalawla saw me opening my business, they were encouraged to open their own businesses,” says Zainab.

“I’m the first and the only woman to open a nursery in Jalawla,” she says, proudly. “When Oxfam told me they would help me reopen my nursery, I became very happy. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Oxfam brought my dream back to me.”

Zainab surveys her ever-expanding nursery. Photo: Dalia Ahmed/Oxfam

Branching out as a businesswoman

Zainab devoted the last year to expanding her nursery. “To develop my business, I learned how to treat my plants using pesticides and compost,” she explains. “I also learned how to reproduce plants and flowers to then sell, instead of buying them from the market. I have been able to increase my monthly income to $500.”

She also uses social media to network and promote her business. “People from Khanaqin and Kalar [nearby cities] have found my business through Facebook and have travelled here to Jalawla to buy from me,” Zainab says. “Everyone who enters my nursery says that it has a special spirit—the space is serene and comforting.”

A role model for her community

What’s next? She’s planning to start a small greenhouse on her rooftop to plant produce and to start exporting to the local market as a main supplier.

Zainab shows off her flowers at the market. Photo: Dalia Ahmed/Oxfam

This spring, Oxfam organized a two-day event to connect small business owners and entrepreneurs with big suppliers and wholesale sellers. Three hundred participants attended the event, with 19 contracts signed between business owners and suppliers, including one between Zainab and a nursery supplier from Jalawla.

“Sometimes I have to go to Baghdad to bring plants and flowers from the suppliers, and I return home at 12 a.m.,” she says. “But my love and passion toward my nursery is my motivation. It is also a good source of income to support my family.”

Zainab and the supplier agreed to provide each other with certain plants if the other does not have them, and they are coordinating trips to the nursery market in Baghdad, sharing and alternating trips. The partnership will save Zainab time so she can focus on her kids—and her plants.

“Each day after I wake up, I have my breakfast and go immediately to my nursery,” she says. “I take care of these plants as if they were my babies. The nursery is part of my family.”

Zainab with one of her daughters in her nursery. Photo: Dalia Ahmed/Oxfam

Akram is proud of his wife. “I consider myself a very lucky man and that God loves me so that he brought me such a brave and perseverant woman,” he declares. “When I see her successful in her work and happy, I can’t help but feel proud of her.”

“Being a woman didn’t stop me from pursuing my dream,” says Zainab. “Instead, being a woman has given me strength and motivation to work harder on myself and my career so that I can become a role model for other women to follow my footsteps.”

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