Meet Lilav. She is 10-years-old, enjoys playing with her younger brother, and loves art. If you are decorating your Christmas tree this year with a little sheep like this, after you made a donation last year to provide a family with livestock, you might just have some of Lilav’s handiwork hanging on your tree.
Sheep ornaments, like the one Lilav is holding above, were sent out with each donation that helped an Iraqi family start a livestock business with a starter flock of sheep. These ornaments might be little, but each is a fluffy reminder of a substantial investment you made in the lives of at least three Iraqi families. These sheep tell a powerful story of perseverance, close family relationships, and ingenuity—all in one small wooly package.
Raising Sheep and Hope
Our first step in helping any family start a new business is to listen. We ask families what skills they have, what they love to do, and about their current situation—then we look for possibilities together. For many families like Adnan’s, who fled from rural areas, raising sheep is work that goes back generations.
Raising sheep is a flexible business. Sheep provide milk that is turned into a variety of products, including yogurt, cheese, and a cold drink that goes perfectly with meat dishes. These products can be kept for the family to eat, or sold to neighbors. Once the sheep’s fleece is shorn and cleaned, it can be used to stuff mattresses and pillows. Families can keep the wool for themselves or sell it. And the sheep themselves can be sold when the flock has grown big enough.
Local breeds of sheep have up to two litters of lambs a year, which quickly grows the starter flock. Families work together at caring for the sheep, and it’s a great way for older children to feel helpful. And for widows living in rural areas who have little opportunity to work outside the home, raising sheep can offer an essential source of income.
Families who choose to raise sheep are patient and persistent. They can see possibility in the future, and they lean into it.
Binding Close Relationships…with Yarn
When we stopped by Zainab’s house to pick up finished ornaments, we had no idea that her daughter Lilav was helping. We shouldn’t have been surprised though—it naturally happened with each woman who made ornaments. We often tell you that the refugee families we partner with have lost everything, but that isn’t true in the strictest sense. Few families lose their sense of commitment to each other.
The displaced families we know help each other, even from the earliest ages. When we invited some women in the Syrian refugee camp to make our wooly sheep ornaments, they jumped at the chance. And when their daughters found out there was coloring involved? They insisted on taking over that task! So before each woman started to wind yarn around the form, their daughters colored the limbs black.
Lilav was proud to show off her work. She was thrilled to have the chance to help her family in a practical way while doing something she loves. And she was glad for the chance to do something fun with her mom! Because even in Iraq, doing homework with your mom isn’t exactly considered fun.
Displacement Doesn’t Have to be the End of the Story
This is Ali. We met him in the woodworker’s bazaar while looking for someone local to make sheep-shaped forms for the ornaments. Ali isn’t a recipient of a small business grant—he is a local vendor with an established business. But it turns out that Ali understands very well what it’s like to be displaced.
Like many of his generation, Ali was displaced as a child during the time of Saddam Hussein and moved around a lot in search of a stable place that could become home. His father died in the Iran-Iraq War while Ali was still young, and since then he took on the responsibility to provide for his family.
Ali told us about friends who grew up in stable families with two parents, yet choose a wrong path for their lives. Ali couldn’t afford to make that same mistake. He became a barber at 13-years-old, but quickly saw that he wouldn’t be able to earn enough cutting hair. He next learned how to build furniture. It was work that he loved, but he wanted to offer his customers fancy designs at a reasonable price. Hand carved furniture was completely unaffordable for most.
Ali stumbled across photos of a CNC machine–essentially a computer-driven carving machine–and decided that was exactly what he needed for his business. The only problem? At the time, you couldn’t buy a machine like that in Iraq, and it was fifteen thousand dollars above his price range. Ali’s solution? He built one himself. From scratch. Starting with learning how to use a basic computer. He didn’t even know what a right-click was when he started.
One of the prevailing myths out of the Middle East is that smart, disadvantaged young men always turn to bomb-making. Ali’s life shows a different narrative—being displaced doesn’t have to be the end of their story or the beginning of another round of violence.
There is no question that Ali has extraordinary talent and ingenuity. But we have seen again and again that with support, encouragement, and a small start-up grant, families affected by war can restart their lives and build up businesses—including flocks of sheep—that support their families.
Every ornament hung on a tree this year is a tangible reminder of the impact on the lives of at least three families.
Every sheep you provided last December has had two lambs this year—your investment has already tripled! These fun ornaments were a limited edition (and now sold-out) item, but you still have the chance to make the same solid investment in Iraqi and Syrian families this year with the purchase of sheep for Iraqi and Syrian families working hard to rebuild their lives.
If your holiday decorations include hanging your sheep ornament on your Christmas tree, popped on the mantle, or tucked in with keepsakes, think about Adnan, Lilav, and Ali—and know that you’re making a difference.