Major, sister helping Iraqi women market art
February 11, 2010
FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. (Feb. 11, 2010) - A U.S. Army major, Vietnamese refugee and three-tour Iraq veteran is teaming with her sister to help Iraqi women market and sell a variety of hand-made goods to the West.
Maj. Thao Reed, of Battle Command Training Program's Operations Group F, and her sister Teresa Nguyen, a Dallas-based marketing specialist, started Janan Collection last year as a way of helping women in Iraq sell their paintings, traditional baskets, custom jewelry and crafts.
"Our first year, the strategy is basically to get the word out, show small venues in Dallas, like artist venues and galleries," Reed said.
She said the company is in the "faith and marketing phase," and is currently trying to connect with the art community in Dallas and generate interest and investors. Reed said the Iraqi women want to work, but there is more interest in their native art overseas than in Iraq.
"We want those women to be able to produce the art themselves, and sustain and provide income themselves, and the way to do that is to expose their products to the U.S. market and the world," Reed said.
She said the collection has artwork from about 30 women in a variety of media and styles. Reed said Iraqis are very proud of their culture and heritage going back to the time of the Babylonians and Assyrians, and some of their artwork reflects that linkage.
"I want people to understand that Iraq is not just about war, but there is a long tradition of artistry in that country, a long tradition of culture," she said.
Reed said the company is not a nonprofit, but all profits go back to the women. She said the goal of the company is to generate income for the women so they can then contribute to the growth of a self-sustaining economy in Iraq. Reed said the women need about $400 per month to provide the necessary food, clothes and supplies for their families, which means each month the women need to make and sell five baskets per day or one painting.
"One painting sold per month gives one family the ability to feed their family for that month," Reed said. "The good thing about these items is they can all do their work at home."
Reed said the idea for helping Iraqi women began toward the end of her second deployment to Iraq in 2006. She said many Iraqi families she saw had men who had been either killed or injured and could not work, and the women who needed to work to support their families were having difficulty finding jobs.
"As I was preparing to go on my third tour, I made a decision that I'm going to make a difference, especially to Iraqi women," Reed said.
During her third deployment to Iraq with the 4th Infantry Division in 2008, Reed said she spoke with Iraqi men and women, members of the provincial reconstruction team in her area, and nonprofit organizations about how to better use donated funds to more effectively address the economic problems of everyday Iraqis. She said one day an Iraqi woman approached her in the Rashid District and told Reed she didn't want any charity, but she had hand-made baskets to sell and asked Reed to help her find a market for them.
"Most of these women are quite poor, but they are willing to support themselves," Reed said. "Most Iraqis, especially these women, don't want charity - charity does not sustain them."
Reed said at first she wasn't sure if she could help the woman, so she took a few weeks to think about the idea and conduct research. She contacted her sister, a marketing specialist, and said her sister was excited to help.
"Because she's my sister, I totally trust her in that these women do need help, and on top of that I do do a lot of community work," Nguyen said. "So it wasn't a matter of should I help, but how can I help."
The partnership continues today with Reed running company operations and Nguyen the marketing campaign, all in their spare time.
Reed said Janan Collection is planning an art exhibit in Dallas in June, and another exhibit in September. She said the company's marketing effort is currently focused in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex because her sister and family live in the area.
Reed said she and her family emigrated from Vietnam in 1979 first to refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines before being sponsored by an American family and moving to Jersey City, N.J. She said her family later moved to Haltom City, Texas, and today her parents own a Vietnamese restaurant in Fort Worth.
Nguyen said helping the Iraqi women has been a learning experience and made her truly appreciate the things she has.
Reed said the company has not sold many products yet because they are still trying to promote the company, generate interest and find partners. She estimated she has invested about $5,000 of her own money so far into the company.
"My sister and I believe that things will happen, we don't know when, but through hard work and persistence I think we will make a difference," Reed said.
"We definitely see Janan growing, and it has," Nguyen said.
For more information visit the Janan Collection Web site at www.janancollection.com.