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Oklahoma City-based program helps Afghan, Rwandan women build business skills

Fifteen women from Afghanistan and Rwanda visited the United States this week as part of the Peace Through Business program's mentorship initiative.
BY CELIA AMPEL campel@opubco.com Published: July 20, 2012

Freshta Hazeq isn't used to other business owners sharing knowledge with her. More often, her competitors threaten to kill her.

Hazeq, who runs the only female-owned printing company in Afghanistan, wants to change the attitude that women in her country must stick to domestic pursuits.

With that in mind, she has spent this week at Impressions Printing in Oklahoma City, learning business skills she can take home.

She is one of 60 women participating in this year's Peace Through Business program, an Oklahoma City-based initiative created to give women in war-torn countries the skills to increase their economic opportunities.

Hazeq said her mentors at Impressions were surprisingly open with her about how to solve printing, sales and marketing issues. They gave her the chance to attend executive meetings and interact with their clients.

The experience was a far cry from what business is like in her hometown of Kabul. Men don't believe it's acceptable for a woman to own a printing and advertising business, she said.

Some people simply tell her she should quit. Others threaten her life.

After she won a contract another firm was competing for, that firm's owner called her and told her he had paid someone to kill her, and she should be ready.

“I didn't fear for myself,” she said of the experience. “I was fearing for my children.”

There were times when she thought she might give up, but she had support from one man in Afghanistan: her husband. She said he stopped going to business meetings with her, against her wishes, because he knew she could handle it.

“You should be always the decision-maker,” Hazeq said her husband told her.

Since then, she said she believes in her ability to run a business without help — and hopes her example helps other women do the same.

Another Afghan, Kobra Dastgirzada, also operates her business amid an atmosphere of threats.

“I am very careful at my job because the people don't accept me so much,” the fitness center owner said. “Some people accept me, but some do not.”

In fact, right after she opened the center, Dastgirzada said that more than once, she found threatening notes on its door. The notes said that everyone who came to the gym would be killed.

Dastgirzada gave the notes to police and hasn't had any drastic problems since. But she knows she must be cautious. She employs two security guards to monitor the outside of her fitness center. Dastgirzada hopes that she can help change that element of her culture.

“It is really peace through business,” Dastgirzada said. “We can bring peace with business. I say, for women, ‘please work. Work is better. Get income for self.' Especially woman. It brings peace to family.”

That's the attitude the Peace Through Business program has been trying to foster since Oklahoma City businesswoman Terry Neese founded it in 2006.

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