In the old city of Geneva, Switzerland, an exhibition of the Rania Kinge’s social enterprise is being held, exhibiting the first collection of traditional jewelry and handicraft , made of Syrian traditional craftsmanship, which is almost completely extinct from Syria because of the war. This initiative aims at supporting the Syrian heritage, and acquainting the West with the Syrian cultural heritage in a modern and artistic way. In its economic aspect, it aims at empowering women who are economically affected by the war by selling their wonderful handicrafts. In the same context, the International Yacht Company (MSC) will display Rania Kinge’s jewelry collections, at a time while still receiving offers for bilateral cooperation from concerned companies in Turkey, Egypt and Greece and from Aleppo, Homs , Tartous and Sweida .
UNICTAD high commission for trade and development has conducted a study on “ Rania Kinge “ I love Syria” Initiative , on how a small business enterprise can solve social issues and provide economic support to vulnerable women under crisis . The study was debated to both UNHCR and IOM provided that Kinge ‘s project is to be viewed as a case study , as a solution to poverty crisis. The study is entitled : UNCTAD Policy Guide on entrepreneurship for Migrants and Refugees.
Moreover, Rania Kinge’s social enterprise was selected as on of the most extraordinary social enterprises providing for displaced and refugee women by the TEDWOMEN world conference. Also Kinge has worked with the international trade center and the Japan government on a project of linking displaced women to international markets.
She is the first self made woman in Syria to work independently with international organizations and governments.
Born in Syria into a family of diplomats and bounced around to different parts of the world — from Beirut, to New York to Geneva and back to Syria — social entrepreneur, artist and jewelry designer Rania Kinge has made Damascus, Syria her home for the last 15 years. Here, amidst the constant threat of ISIS destroying her ancient land, Rania has launched a social enterprise cottage industry that has become the “tiny haven” where displaced women are employed to craft her artisan jewelry design lines — I Love Syria and Damascus Concept.
Her designs transform lives, instill self-dignity and transcend into world markets from Middle East (Lebanon, Dubai) to Europe (UK, Switzerland, Spain, Greece) and US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. As death and dying creep ever closer just outside her workshop door — the women find refuge in each other’s company, listen to music, enjoy dark, strong Arabic coffee and construct “hip and trendy items” oblivious to the dangers which only enter the workshop in form of interrupting power outages and the common complications of living in a horrific war zone.
Since Rania is a Swiss citizen free to leave the war-torn Syria, yet her unswerving conscious decision to stay has empowered and strengthened her — perhaps with a “delusion of self-empowerment” — to ensure her ancient city is not abandoned. She forges ahead “passionate about both reviving the ancient artisanal wisdoms of its (Syria’s) people and the local manufacturing capability of its economy” because she “cannot live just watching Syria fall to pieces, marginalized and relegated to the realm of third world country, its women living on charity, and its people constant victims of war.”
Used to work under the daily rocket attacks remind her of “the fragility of life and mortality” as Rania joins millions of Syrians living with the stark truth of death and dying that can occur at an instance. A reality quite foreign to westerners, Rania admits.
“The Shiny Bead”
The love of jewelry design fired up in Rania at age 25 when visiting New York City where she was mesmerized by a sparkling Swarovski bead. It was love at first sight with the “shiny bead” and the possibilities propelled her privileged life — as a computer specialist living in Switzerland — to opening a boutique to showcase unique jewelry products — including some of her own design and other items made by artisans in Syria. Rania saw an ample opportunity to establish an outsourcing business in Syria and “compete on both price and quality.” But that meant relocating to Syria to nurture an “underutilized and underdeveloped artisanal market” investing all her savings and time.
The Syrian war surprisingly “stocked a love” for Syria she was unaware she had, and a commitment to symbolically protect her country from total obliteration soon integrated the Syrian flag — “representative of the broadest Syrian identity” — into some of her designs evolving her company into a social enterprise now called I LOVE SYRIA.
On what triggered her artistic endeavors, she explained :” in parts, I belong to this place and I know that the historical narrative of Syria — for those who care — is not about extremism and destroyed cities and ISIS. Damascus is not some one-horse town in the middle of a desert with a couple of camels tied to a bunch of huts. It is about the treasures of humanity, the enlightenment of female leaders like Zanoubia who two millennia ago proclaimed treatises of religious tolerance; it is about villages which up until recently contained the remnants of the last living speakers of ancient Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.
Through her jewelry and accessories, Rania takes a stand in “purposeful, diametric opposition to the religious fanaticism, death and extremism that has pervaded” her society. Her vibrant designs employ light, art, youth, creation, colors and joy. The “group therapy” in her atelier empowers her — as well as the women and their children — to “stand taller” to deliver a message of hope saying: “We’re still here”. Considering herself a “small bridge” in the preservation of the rich and ancient Damascene (Qishani, etc.) design traditions to the world of art, artisanship and trend, she’s well aware of the false perception she reflects to those both inside and outside the country — as a sympathizer of the Islamists for empowering those displaced and a pro-government nationalist for the use of the Syrian national flag.
My job is to work with people, women specifically. Our flag is much bigger than one leader or one institution at one moment in time. I am hearkening back in my art to an identity that once united us all as a people capable of creativity, skill, and beauty in diversity.
She’s proud that her privileged upbringing at a boarding school didn’t diminish her social awareness and sense of social justice, keeping her creativity and prosperity for the “human tribe” realizing how citizens of the world can bring communities together — unlike the forces of war and destruction.”
In-spite of the unimaginable daily hardships of life in a war zone, Rania is determined to press on with her social enterprise in Syria as a way to create jobs at home while having an opportunity to display her products in the international arena. Operating on a shoestring budget, she is yet to breakeven, but thrilled about the implementation and proof in validating “investment with a conscience” not only in Syria but also around the globe. She’s hopeful that one day her social enterprise may receive the direly needed investment to purchase a generator for her workshop so she can expand her space employ more women and operate at a larger scale to create increased products and amenable livelihoods.
Remaining in Damascus means becoming more resourceful in dealing with the daily challenges of running a small business in a war zone where bombs mean undependable infrastructure, and filling an order in time depends on how long power outages will cripple her production to a standstill or when the next delivery of commercial goods (or even money) into and out of Syria will be possible.
“The ancient Damascene craftwork on mosaics and Qishani in the deep archives of our national history is being used to give the women and girls I work with a new life. Based on the old, the new will thrive,” Rania hopes to convey to the world “Syrians are really not a bloody people, despite the media coverage… or people who like to see heads cut off and livers eaten.” It’s incredible for her to witness what is happening to the “treasures of our civilization, on the sacred land, in places where the language of Christ is still spoken.”
She hopes her art will manifest itself as a symbol of resilience and hope for the new generation to know that all will normalize soon.
I want to create a market of conscious consumers who ultimately appreciate great colors, quality and design, who love wearing our items, and who also subsequently care that their purchases directly help someone in Syria who has absolutely no other options or alternatives to make a living and feed her children.
There is no better weapon against narrow-minded ideological and religious tyranny than the prospect of livelihood, dignity and the optimism to bring people together with long history of tolerance and dignity. I am going to go on. I and anyone in my city can get blown to pieces at any moment, but I have what is perhaps a bit of that New Yorker attitude in me, and I am intentionally, willfully defiant.
Excerpts to the media , especially by journalist Jackie Abramian give clear and definite answers on Rania’s story of success and a life span of creativity and commitment to her homeland for serving a humanitarian message through art. They read as follows:
About her early childhood, Rania noted I was born in Syria into a family of diplomats; my father was a proud nationalist and wanted to make sure that his children had roots engrained in the land of his forefathers. It was very important for him that we be born in Syria, so my mother travelled back expressly to give birth for both me and my younger sister. We moved around quite a lot as young kids; for a time we lived in Beirut, where I had my first early experiences of war in the late 70s. My father tells me of a time when he grabbed us as toddlers and ran out of a building that was being fired upon. We were lucky enough to be able to leave that place, thanks to my father’s job as a high ranking United Nations official. We grew up for a part of our childhood in New York City.
On her first memory of war? She explained :”My first memory of war was when I was in Beirut in 1978, when we had to flee from the building we lived in because it was being shot at. More recently, in Damascus, we started to see rockets flying over our heads”.
Emanating from a context of war and conflict, both as a child and now as an adult you begin to perceive exactly how malleable the fabric of social interactions can be. Your relationship with people simply changes, everything adjusts to an ever-changing normal; friendships with neighbors transform, people you once trusted can no longer be, and it becomes clear that anyone can be out to betray anyone else. This has implications on absolutely everything, from entrusting your children to a neighbor while you run out to the store, to receiving a line of credit to fill the shelves of your shop, to calculating the probability of being robbed, kidnapped or held at ransom on any given street corner. The texture of society evolves, erodes…and I find myself as an adult constantly mourning the loss of social and cultural capital in the city of Damascus, a city which has been continuously inhabited by the most diverse of religious and cultural communities for eight thousand years.
As rockets fall and the threat of the latest crazy maniacs from the ISIS presses ever closer through the suburbs into the heart of Damascus, it dawns on you how fragile your mortality is. You can be at school, walking in the street, or at the souk… and at any moment it is possible that you die. I have no idea how to convey that feeling to a European or Western audience who will have had no exposure whatsoever to such a reality. So this changes your world because you have two choices: either you stay home cowering in fear every single day, or you go out and get on with your life. I choose the latter because and not despite the fact there are rockets falling and people dying around us. Millions of people around me are facing the same exact choice every day; is my blood more expensive than theirs? I choose this also with full awareness that I am a Swiss citizen and can come and live a comfortable life in Geneva any time. My mindset began to shift as I now see my own decisions as a source of strength; perhaps it is a delusion of self-empowerment, but I know that no matter what I am not going to stop living my life. It’s a matter of intent; every day, one needs to weigh their intent.
Despite being a kid who has grown up in cities like New York and Geneva, for nearly fifteen years now I have made Damascus my home and I have been passionate about both reviving the ancient artisanal wisdoms of its people and the local manufacturing capability of its economy. I cannot live with watching Syria fall to pieces, marginalized and relegated to the realm of 3rd world country, its women living on charity, and its people eternal victims of war. I am going to go on. I and anyone in my city can get blown to pieces at any moment, but I have what is perhaps a bit of that New Yorker attitude in me, and I am intentionally, willfully defiant. My lifestyle has changed a bit because it’s harder to walk around my town with my shorts and t-shirts on while walking my dog, but I still do it.
In my work, despite living in a city where the veil of negative energy sits heavily over the very granular statistic of death, and where this is palpable not only in the smell of the air but in the sheer feeling of being …. I have been fortunate enough to create a tiny haven where women gather, put on the music, make coffee and work together with bright colored materials to create beautiful – and if I do say so myself, pretty hip and trendy items. These women are very different from me. I walk around with shorts and a t-shirt often in the company of my dog; they come largely from conservative Muslim families in suburbs where the conflict has created massive swathes of displaced persons. They are often widowed young, live in shelters, have children to feed and no sources of income. They have belief systems and levels of religious indoctrination that I do not share. Yet, together we have created a little sparkle of happiness and light in a city darkened with war. It feels sometimes like we’re not even there, sitting in our little bubble and laughing…at least until the electricity goes out.
On the message in her designs – in her art?
The message is “We’re still here”. We are an entire population that is still here; about 6,000,000 of us in Damascus (25M in total) living through every day and hoping for a better future for our children. The Islamists of ISIS are like a plague that has come … but will also go with time. Even under the ridiculous embargo conditions we have to live under, and the routine cuts in electricity and water that leaves us anxiously awaiting respite, we have our lives to get on with. And we absolutely can play a role in the contribution of our rich and ancient Damascene (Qishani, etc.) design traditions to the world of art, artisanship and trend. I’m one small bridge to that participation.
I am pushing the idea of social enterprise in Syria, of doing good through a small business that creates jobs and plays on an international arena, albeit in small ways. I hope one day our enterprise may be invested in and given the guidance we need to operate at scale and create better livelihoods; I’ll keep doing what I am doing. Because it makes more sense than getting angry. Because that’s the path of least resistance. It’s not easy.
The ancient Damascene craftwork on mosaics and Qishani in the deep archives of our national history is being used to give the women and girls I work with a new life. Based on the old, the new will thrive, she noted.