Sparks, skills and new hope for Afghan refugee women in Iran

Iran, A company founded by a young Afghan inventor empolys vulnerable refugee women

Afghan inventor Nour Mohammad Mohammadi, 23, teaches electronics to female Afghan refugees in Iran.  © UNHCR/S.Rich

SHIRAZ, Iran, Sept 18 (UNHCR) - In the southern Iranian city of Shiraz, a group of Afghan women are connecting wires, soldering motherboards and making cars safer. One of them is a 20 year-old who has lived with her disabled mother since her father died. Another is an 18 year-old living with an elderly father and a disabled brother. Their fortunes began to change when they met Noor Mohammad.

Nour Mohammad Mohammadi is a quiet, unassuming and gentle 23-year-old Afghan refugee. He fled war in Afghanistan's Maidan Wardak Province in 1996 and settled in Iran. There, he studied auto mechanics, assisted partially by UNHCR, and worked as a mechanic in an auto shop at the same time.

"My family and I also lived in poverty," Mohammadi explains. "My brother is disabled, and my father did not allow my sister to attend school or to work."

His situation motivated him to start inventing security systems for vehicles. In 2012, UNHCR assisted him financially, allowing him to invent a starter system for vehicles that he was able to patent. He won third place in the National Inventing Festival of Iran in early 2013. He kept working on new safety mechanisms for vehicles including a speed monitor that slows the vehicle when the seatbelt is not fastened. He has since continued to win awards and contracts from vehicle companies for his inventions. He finally registered his company and was offered an office space by the Ministry of Science in 2013.

In March 2014, Mohammadi approached UNHCR for help to expand his business. It coincided with a time when UNHCR and its government counterpart, the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrant's Affairs (BAFIA) had begun reaching out to vulnerable families to better support them. It became clear that many skilled women were being left out of the workforce. BAFIA and UNHCR also began working with refugees more actively to take more responsibility within their own communities.

Mohammadi, UNHCR and BAFIA developed a plan where he would hire women to work to assemble his inventions in exchange for financial support.

Today, Mohammadi manufactures 10 different inventions for vehicles and has a team of 13 staff; of which two are Iranians and the rest are Afghans. Five of his employees are women, and he recently approached UNHCR to help him hire even more women.

"The first week was difficult for me," says 21 year-old Tahmina. "I did everything wrong. But Mohammadi was very patient and helped me fix my mistakes. Last month I earned 100 USD."

To overcome cultural barriers, he provides the women with equipment so they can work from home. The women regulate their own working hours, and care for their family members when needed. They earn between 100 - 200 USD a month depending on how many items they produce, and he posted a profit of 4,000 USD last financial year that he reinvested back into the company.

"Since I started to work at home I became more confident and I am able to help my family to cover their expenses," Maryam, another employee says. "I hope that I can develop my skills and work in a big company in near future."

Mohammadi is extremely proud of the women who work for him. "In one case, I gave some work to a 20 year-old lady who had never attended school. She was supposed to return the finished work in one week, but she came back in 2 days with all the work perfectly done. I first suspected she got outside help, but then I saw that she had done it all by herself. She even taught me how to do the task more efficiently."

Mohammadi hopes that the security situation in Afghanistan improves so that he can return home someday, attend university and establish a company there.

"Many people believe that uneducated Afghan refugee women cannot undertake complex technical jobs, but we have proved otherwise," adds Reza Kavosh, the livelihood focal point with UNHCR Shiraz. "With jobs come confidence, pride, income, and better opportunities for a durable solution."

This is the case of Tahmina and her mother who are being resettled to Sweden. "I am going to tell the people in Sweden that I can help make electronic devices, and I hope to find work there so I can continue to help support my family."

"I have so many ideas that will help the Afghan community in Iran," says Mohammadi. "I would like to get in touch with Afghan university students, and invent even more products with them. I'm sure they have good ideas. And if someone invests more money into my business, I can establish a workshop and hire even more vulnerable refugee women."