Rania Marie Kinge, a young woman with a lot of energy, a cosmopolitan spirit and great enthusiasm. She has everything a modern woman requires to launch a company, a social fashion brand to be more precise. Actually, she hardly differs from other women in that role, was it not for her origin.
Suzanna Vock: Rania tell me about you, your childhood and your family. Where did you grow up and how did you get to Geneva, where you now live?
My childhood years took place between Lebanon, Jordan, New York and Geneva
Rania Kinge: My father was a diplomat for the United Nations and so my sister and I spent our younger years going from one country to the other. However, my dad made a point to spend all our summer vacations in Syria, making sure that for the birth of his first daughter- me – it would be in Syria. So I was born in Syria, and then my sister was, too.
My childhood years took place between Lebanon, Jordan, New York and Geneva. They were marked by violent fights between my parents, which resulted in an explosive divorce that landed us in Syria, unable to leave due to Sharia law. At that time I spent 2 years in the care and warmth of my grandmother, where I learned Arabic in 5th and 6th grade, that was followed by a kidnapping by my mother, which landed me in Geneva at age 10. All of this resulted in me not seeing my dad for a long time, and living in undesirable and dangerous conditions as a child, as well as my total alienation in school and as a young adult.
After seeing my dad again, I was boarding in a private school in Geneva, and during university I was in an American school in Paris, Leysin in the Swiss alps and Cyprus. Don’t ask how I ended up in Cyprus… I’ve no idea.
SV: We met for the first time during the LAAX Vintage Days, when you introduced your brand I Love Syria “Made by Women”. What was the reason to launch a fashion brand in the middle of the Syrian war zone?
So I thought providing income for the mothers would contribute to alleviating the burdens of poverty and contribute to peace
RK: I had already been living in Syria before the war, and opened a workshop there. First when I visited Syria as an adult, I saw that Syria’s economy was based on crafts. However, it was underdeveloped and I saw a need to create added value by coming up with modern designs using local techniques at the same time enhancing knowhow and skills. I stopped after 6 years because it was too corrupt, and I was having a hard time with local culture in terms of trust, ethics and endless manufacturing problems.
When the war started, the people became polarised with each side fighting the other. However none of them were talking about the pressing needs of the local economy and societal issues.
So I left for NYC. There I started my own company, and then my boyfriend at the time who is my husband now, got ambushed by an Islamic terrorist group, which resulted in a 4 very severe bullet wounds. This made me go back to provide whatever assistance I could. During that time, I visited shelters of displaced people, and here I saw the urgency to create something that can generate income for them so they can get out of shelters and go back to a life of somewhat normality, even though the situation was totally chaotic – keeping in mind that children who grow in poverty and violence, will perpetuate violence when they grow up. And all of this took place in an already very violent society, which will only make things much worse. So I thought providing income for the mothers would contribute to alleviating the burdens of poverty and contribute to peace.
When I started to visit the shelters of displaced women, I immediately thought of something that can generate income. I knew that whatever it was I would teach them, it had to be taught in a short amount of time. Therefore it had to be simple, as most women don’t have any education or any previous background in the artistry of hand-made items. It also had to be produced without electricity, and had to generate income straight away. What is more, it had to be something appealing to both a local and an international audience.
So, at the beginning of the war, it was shocking to see the emergence of another flag designating Syria on the internet. However this flag was a foreign flag and was associated with the beginning of violence and destruction in Syria. So I created a crystal bead bracelet showing the Syrian national flag, representing Syria’s unity, and went to the shelters to see if anyone was interested in learning something new and earning an income at the same time.
Since then, we have stopped working with shelters and our group has gone from 8 women to over 100 women, coming from all walks of life. The decision to make to create a company in the middle of the war is because I started and stopped before the war due to cultural issues, and in my opinion the Syrian crisis stems from cultural issues. I therefore felt if anything had to be done, it was now, in the middle of chaos, while everything is turned upside down, not after the war when everything is okay.
“MADE BY WOMEN” WORKSHOP TOUR IN DAMASCUS
SV: There are about 100 women working for you who get a salary every month. What’s everyday life like in Damascus? Where are the problems?
RK: There are many problems aside, of course, the security aspects relating to the thousands of rockets that fell on our heads every day. There was also lack of electricity which prevented us from using any machines, but we did get an electrical generator. There problem with that was that there wasn’t any diesel to power the generator.
However our main every day issues were cultural/ethical and relating to lack of trust, especially with merchants from whom we bought our raw materials, and other people in the entire spectrum of the society, top down, trying to get a free ride on our back to advance their own public image, social status and or persona.
The second most difficult aspect is the training of the girls and establishing a civilised and friendly relationship based on trust. We have some women who are illiterate. None of them have never worked in their lives, and all consider that anyone who is making a project, must be making millions or else they would not make a business, and therefore they are uncooperative, many times also ungrateful and condescending. This is due to the lack of opportunities and lack of an entrepreneurial ecosystem as well as lack to access to finance and the somewhat tribal mindset. It discourages any independent personal initiative. That lack of personal initiative is also related to the propensity of an individual to feel able, independent and empowered in his or her society. As a result, in a society that doesn’t encourage independent thought, it’s very difficult. In terms of ease to do business, Syria was ranked the lowest compared to its neighbours before the war, so imagine the situation after the war.
It took many years to make them understand the principles of social enterprise, which is a concept that is nonexistent in Syria, and now we are a unit of interdependent individuals. I can give you one example that touched me.
When we had a major exhibition at the UN in Geneva last year, we had to stay up several days in a row to pack all the merchandise to make it on time for the show. Some of the girls coming from extremely conservative backgrounds, could not stay at the workshop past 5pm because it was forbidden for them to be outside the house at that time and mainly because Ismail, who is my husband now, was there and in their culture a woman should not be in the presence of a man unless he is her father or brother. In spite of that, they stayed packing until 5 o’clock in the morning, and even their parents came to give a hand with work. I was really happy with that as it shows our work is also affecting culture in a positive way, by introducing fraternity and friendship between men and women as well as relationship based on trust instead of on dogma and social status.
In order to understand what everyday life is like, you need to feel the atmosphere while walking in the street
Every day life in Damascus is me falling out of bed and going to walk my dogs, usually having a fall out with someone because many people there consider dogs to be impure: cue people to utter unfriendly words towards them and me. Usually I would not pay attention, but after a while I would answer back, and that would be it, as particularly in the case of men, they don’t expect to get a response from a woman. They I go to the workshop and start training prototyping. During that time, we enjoy creating and being in each other’s company. Usually one of the girls makes tea for everyone, and we put some music and feel inspired and hopeful, until the electricity goes out – again – and then we put the batteries on.
INTERVIEW WITH “MADE BY WOMEN” EMPLOYEE
SV: What’s your everyday working life like? How often are you in Syria? How do you travel to Syria? Where are the dangers involved?
RK: I actually now live in Syria but have to travel a lot to hold exhibitions of our brand. People locally are not very sensitive to social enterprise, and unless you are connected to someone prominent in society, you don’t get much promotion, so all our sales happen outside Syria, where people understand the need to generate income within disadvantaged populations.
In order to understand what everyday life is like, you need to feel the atmosphere while walking in the street. First, everybody walks with a frown on their face, because they believe that the more threatening one looks the more respect or social status one gets. There is no priority for pedestrians, so cars actually accelerate when they see you crossing instead of slowing down, because in their view walking by foot belongs to lower class people. The same goes for people riding bicycles, which is also not socially accepted for girls, as in their view a girl riding a bicycle is related to something sexual since she has something between her legs.
The dangers are on the road. Anything can happen outside
In that setting, I go walking everyday to the workshop, training and making new prototypes. In evening time I don’t go out, although many people do and party… but for me I can’t wrap my head around going out and partying, knowing so many people and animals around are suffering. So in the evening, I’m on social media following the page and online marketing.
Due to international sanctions on Syria, Damascus airport is not serviced by European companies, so I have to take the car to Beirut and fly from there… Flying from Beirut airport is an ordeal as we face a lot of unfriendliness there. All the times I have travelled through Beirut airport, the handling of my dogs was potentially fatal for them, which makes the experience very traumatising.
The dangers are on the road. Anything can happen outside the proximity of military check points, however even on military check points, when they see my dogs, a lot of the time we get harassed… If you look threatening though, either frowning or looking like you may have inside connections to someone powerful in some way, it deters them, which is also extremely uncomfortable.
We would love to collaborate with sustainable materials producers to create our collections, or produce for sustainable brands
SV: How does the procurement of materials happen and where do they come from? Also, how much do you value the sustainability of your materials?
RK: When it’s something special, I order them in Switzerland and take them with me. Or send them to Lebanon and then ship them to Syria. 90% of raw materials are from the Damascus Souk. We value sustainability a lot, however in the local market, there is no such thing as an awareness for sustainability. We would love to collaborate with sustainable materials producers to create our collections, or produce for sustainable brands.
SV: With your brand I Love Syria – Made by Women, do you currently produce mainly accessories? And where do you want to go with your brand? What’s the difference between I Love Syria and Made by Women?
RK: We would like to break even now with I Love Syria and for me personally, I would like to resume producing my own collection which I have been putting aside for 5 years to concentrate on providing revenue for the women as mentioned earlier.
We produce mainly accessories but would love to go into garment too. We would like to have a big enough distribution network in order to break even and be showcased in stores in Switzerland. I Love Syria is the main brand, and Made by Women is our association. Rebekka made a marketing study and found that the word Syria is associated with negative emotions, and so we will start distributing under the Made by Women name. I will keep the I love Syria brand chiefly for the local market inside Syria.
Our yearly production in bracelets is about 20’000 units and in bags about 4000 units
SV: Do you also accept commissions? And how does the process work? Who does the design, how big is your daily production capacity?
RK: We do some commission collaborations but we don’t like it too much. If commission-based stores don’t sell, we are left with all the merchandise and sometimes the merchandise wears off after a while and becomes unsellable.
Our yearly production in bracelets is about 20’000 units and in bags about 4000 units. Usually I make the designs, but sometimes we produce for other brands with their own design. We are able to produce for other brands if they send us the design and production process. Of course we are always open for new ideas.
SV: There was also Rebekka Rauscher in LAAX. She is an administrator, if I understood correctly. How did this particular cooperation come about?
RK: Rebekka joined last year as she was doing her Masters, and conducted a marketing study on I love Syria. She is vice president of Made by Women and helps whenever she has time with sales and administration.
This article is not paid content.