At Home with Boumi’s Founder Hassina Sherjan

Kabul, Afghanistan. With the light pouring into the sitting room of Hassina Sherjan’s roomy Afghan home, the treasures she has accumulated and arranged are a glowing representation of so much about Afghanistan that is so beautiful.

 

Pillows from the Boumi home furnishings collection. Photo courtesy Boumi.

Everything about the atmosphere is at once Afghan – and global – and the hospitality, with nuts, dried fruits and sugar cookies, is an elegant version of the kindness I have come to find in every Afghan’s home during my first month in Kabul.   The scent of Earl Grey tea, mixed with a hint of incense and roses (from her lovely garden), brings more warmth as we sit and talk.

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Popular bird pillow from the Boumi home furnishings collection. Photo courtesy Artin Arts.

For all she has accomplished (bio) Hassina is humble, and for all she has yet to do, she is calm and focused, getting ready to head to Amsterdam in a few days to speak at the TEDConference in the Netherlands.

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Detail of fine embroidery of textiles from the Boumi collection. Photo courtesy Boumi.

This is a woman who has educated thousands of girls and continues to build and run schools across Afghanistan, after originally building clandestine schools for girls during the period of Taliban rule.

This is a woman who has lived in America, and has traveled all over the world, who came back to Afghanistan, her beloved country, to make a difference in the lives not only of girls, but of families – women, men, and whole communities.

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Traditional Afghani rugs and furnishings. Photo courtesy Artin Arts.

This is a woman who has built one of the most successful non-profit organizations in Afghanistan, Aid Afghanistan for Education (AAE) – while in her spare time starting up a thriving social entrepreneurship called Boumi (link), designing, manufacturing and distributing luxurious home goods made by hundreds of Afghan employees in her factory in Kabul.   Hassina says:

What we are doing is not just about the girls, but about the families.   Afghan families are very close, and as we have grown, and have combined our work in education and vocational training with the development of good jobs in our factory, we have learned the joy and potential of bringing income into the home.   Men here are important, and without them we would not have been successful.     This is really about supporting what is so positive in Afghan culture, and that is love and respect and deep family roots and loyalty.

I ask Hassina about the early days, when she was refused permission to open a few small schools for girls.     “We had to go underground,” she says, “and we succeeded.

From that small beginning of five classes, and after the fall of the Taliban, Aid Afghanistan for Education blossomed quickly.   Today, Aid Afghanistan for Education supports over 3,500 students, for an average cost of one US dollar per day per child.   Their focus continues to be on accelerated learning and vocational training.   Hassina told me:

What continually inspires me is the spirit of these girls and women.   After three decades of conflict, after all the violence, after substantial discrimination and the loss of lives, these girls and women have a light in their eyes that will never be extinguished.

To now see our original girls growing into women who are raising families, starting businesses, participating in the political process, and simply living happier and more fulfilling lives is such a reward.

These young women carry with them not only what they have learned in our schools, but a genuine gratitude to our teachers and to the countries that have supported our efforts.   They know this world is actually a quite beautiful place.

Speaking of beautiful, Hassina’s sunlit rooms are resplendent with embroidered silk cushions, pillows, and the most charming, huggable embroidered bird – an extremely popular new item in the Boumi collection.   Several years ago, Hassina “stumbled” upon an opportunity to open a factory where these magnificent home accessories could be made, which led to a healthy business employing 42 women and men.   The sophisticated cotton and silk placemats, napkins, curtains, tea cozies, iPhone and business card cases are sophisticated and modern, and made from materials native to Afghanistan.

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Students at one of the Aid Afghanistan for Education schools.
Photo courtesy Aid Afghanistan.

Hassina explains that the goal is still not 100% met, as the factories that used to produce exquisite cotton before the wars exist now only as empty shells:

Boumi is the Farsi word for indigenous and it defines our ultimate goal to manufacture beautiful products the world can appreciate with raw materials produced in Afghanistan.   It’s a shame – we actually spin cotton thread here in Afghanistan, but then ship it to Pakistan.   Why can’t we rebuild our factories here?   Why can’t we bring looms into the homes of women for hand-loomed cotton fabrics? Why can’t we set up a dying facility and create beautiful products – and jobs – 100% Afghan?

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Sewing curtains at the Boumi Factory in Kabul. Photo courtesy of Boumi.

Indeed!   Hassina is actively recruiting investors for such initiatives, and there is no doubt left that she will succeed in this pursuit as she has succeeded all along.   She is also working hard to attract sponsors who can fund additional schools for girls, as there is still much to be done.   “AAE is so grateful for the support of wonderful organizations including DANIDA, USAID, CIDA, and the U.N. Committee of New Canaan.”

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Literacy programs in Dari, Pashto and English. Photo courtesy Aid Afghanistan.

“One of my goals is to generate more funding from the Afghan community, whether Afghans living in other countries, or more importantly successful Afghans living in country.”   Hassina left Afghanistan as a refugee in 1979.   She returned to Afghanistan for the first time in 1999, the year she established the first five underground classes.   After the defeat of the Taliban, she came back to Afghanistan to participate in the reconstruction of the country full-time.

We talk about the peace process on this, the third day of the historic Loya Jirga.   “I’m hopeful,” Hassina says, “and aware that the types of programs we are continuing to build – educating people and providing economic opportunities – is really a huge part of the peace process.   When new friends ask what I do, I tell them counter-insurgency! What we really do when we educate girls and employ men and women is to safeguard the independence of Afghan families.”

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Hassina Sherjan’s dining room and collection of Herat hand-blown glass.
Photo courtesy Artin Arts.

It was a beautiful day in Kabul, sunny and warm especially for mid-November.   I couldn’t stop thinking about Hassina’s story – of her courage, of her vision, of her success.   These are the stories that must be told coming out of the beautiful mosaic of this country.   Traffic was light, but security was heavy driving home, and when we passed near where the 2,000 elders were gathered to develop a way forward as their country emerges slowly but surely from too much conflict, I thought – I know just the woman you should talk to.

AN AMERICAN IN AFGHANISTAN
Cynthia Artin
is an entrepreneur and humanitarian currently living and working in Kabul, Afghanistan.   On assignment for the Noori Foundation Afghanistan, and helping to establish a center for war widows and their children, Cynthia will be publishing weekly profiles of interesting people doing good things in what she calls “one of the most beautiful places on Earth.”   Cynthia is a Global Advisor to The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation and a new contributor to The Stewardship Report.

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About Cynthia Artin: An American in Afghanistan

View all posts by Cynthia Artin: An American in Afghanistan
Cynthia Artin: An American in Afghanistan
Cynthia Artin has been writing for The Stewardship Report since 2011, starting with her column AN AMERICAN IN AFGHANISTAN. Back from Kabul, but still very active in supporting Afghan social entrepreneurs, she is now inking a weekly column on leaders in humanitarianism who are creating innovative and efficient models for positive change and sustainable impact. Cynthia is Founder and President of Artin Arts, and a James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation Global Advisor.

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