As Khadija Naziry darts from vats of melting wax to a large tray of metal candle molds, her pronounced limp almost goes unnoticed. Her energy and passion mask the past decades of hardship she suffered living in Kabul through wars, violence and oppression.
Khadija is the master candle maker at Mercy Corps’ Chelsitun Women’s Center, a business incubator and training center based in one of the poorest areas of Kabul.
“The center was developed to help women improve their skills and their economic condition,” says Kamela Sidiqi, a business trainer in Mercy Corps’ Kabul office. The center offers literacy and English classes, as well as vocational training. A recently launched course in candle-making has proved to be extremely popular and successful, and has changed the lives of many Afghan women, most notably Khadija.
“I started out working as a cleaning lady in the Women’s Center,” says Khadija as she carefully stirs a vat of melting wax. “The center was just starting candle-making classes and I had to clean the room after the class. When the students left, I would make candles with the left over materials. I would watch the class and then try to remember the process. I was just doing it for fun, but then the Director found out what I was doing.”
Khadija’s creative talent and interest in candle-making was quickly recognized by the Chelsitun Women’s Center staff and she was invited to go through training and run the program.
Initially, Khadija refused the offer. “I had a secure job and a contract as a cleaning lady with the center,” explains Khadija. “The candle-making program was new and they could not offer me a guaranteed contract. I was afraid to take the risk of losing my income.”
A widow and the sole supporter of seven children, Khadija was reluctant to take the financial risk, even if it was a significant promotion and more interesting job. Like many women in Afghanistan, Khadija has endured hardships unthinkable to most people. Her husband was killed 11 years ago when the Mujahideen attacked Kabul. During the recent war with the United States, she was hit by shrapnel and now walks with a limp.
“During the Taliban I worked as a tailor making very little money and my family survived on rations,” says Khadija. “After the war, there was no business for tailors and things were very difficult for us. When this Women’s Center opened I finally found work as a cleaning lady and continued sewing at night to earn enough money for my family to survive. Even though I wanted to take the candle-maker job I was too afraid to accept it.”
However, after long discussions with the Mercy Corps staff, Khadija finally overcame her initial fears and accepted the position. For the past four months, Khadija has been turning out batches of beautiful candles that are selling well, and training other Afghan women on the art and process.
“Now I am very happy,” says Khadija as she proudly stands over a large table stacked with hundreds of candles she has created. “I am training other women and we are making good products in Afghanistan. Every night I dream about candles and what I will make tomorrow.”