Women Start Iraq Town’s First Bakery

April 20, 2022 • Iraq
Ten partners opened Maria’s Bakery, which is not only the first bakery in their Iraqi town, but also the first business there that is operated by women.

Graduates of a Samaritan’s Purse vocational training program launch a business that defies cultural norms.

Long before the first light of dawn, Hiba* gets up and leaves her family of 10 at home. Traveling down a side street in her town in Iraq, she arrives at a storefront with two large, rolling metal doors that open to the sidewalk. Inside, two different types of ovens sit in opposite corners while a couple of tables stand in the middle of the room. Some cooking oil and bags of flour sit propped against the wall. This is Maria’s Bakery, where Hiba will begin mixing dough to make traditional breads and pastries.

Maria’s Bakery staff make many pastries.

An hour after she arrives, customers including neighbors, government officials, and other members of the community begin coming to get their baked goods for the day. The fresh supply sells out each morning and afternoon.

Maria’s Bakery is an anomaly. Never before has the town had a bakery, and women don’t generally work outside the home. Yet, Hiba is one of a group of 10 female partners who operate this budding new business, encouraged by Samaritan’s Purse vocational training. During two months of classes held three days a week, the women—many of whom are widows or single mothers—learned business skills and basic literacy that helped them launch out on their own. A Samaritan’s Purse grant of $3,000 provided the group with the capital they needed to buy start-up supplies while their trainers helped them secure these items at a fair market price.

Since the bakery opened, the women have each earned $100 per month profit. For Hiba, these proceeds are a critical part of what motivates her to be in business.

“As a family, we don’t have a source of income,” she said. “The money I get is for food.”

Delicacies Served Fresh and Hot

Maria’s Bakery is succeeding, in part, because they are supplying bread for weddings. For these special occasions, it is common in this more rural area of Iraq to serve meat soup together with traditional Iraqi bread—each piece a large, flat, round delicacy.

Hiba takes a piece of traditional Iraqi bread out of the oven.

“This type of bread is best when it’s hot,” said Sarah Finkbeiner, Samaritan’s Purse project coordinator for livelihoods programming on the Nineveh Plains. “If you go all the way to [the big city] to pick it up and bring it back to the wedding, it’s too late. They need a place in town.”

In addition to making this type of bread as well as sandwich bread, Maria’s Bakery also produces kulicha, an Iraqi pastry served at tea time or special festivals. To make this treat, the bakers mix heavy cream, vanilla, and sugar in the dough by hand. They avoid using a mixer to keep an eye on its texture as they add the various ingredients. When the dough is just right, they let the it rest for half an hour before punching it down. Then, they cut it into small pieces and fill it with dates or pistachios.

As soon as the kulicha comes out of the oven, customers gather them up by the bagful.

In hopes of gaining more sales, the bakers heed marketing training they received from Samaritan’s Purse. They all have matching aprons purchased from the local market and a large, colorful sign that advertises their products. Since Maria’s Bakery is located on a side street, they plan to hang the sign at the center of the town to generate even more interest.

‘Hard Pasts, Hard Histories’

When they were just getting started, Hiba and the other eight partners said to their leader, Farah*, “As a gift from us to you, we will name our bakery by your daughter’s name.”

The bakery’s sign helps generate business.

Farah’s precious daughter went missing a few years back, an ongoing source of agony. Sadly, this is not uncommon as many of the women who attend vocational training offered by Samaritan’s Purse have lost children or spouses, through various circumstances.

“These women are from an area that was previously occupied by ISIS,” Sarah said. “Some of them lived under ISIS control; others had to flee. So, they’ve had hard pasts, hard histories. They’ve lost family members and loved ones. But they’re very resilient and have come together, continuing to work and participate in their communities and provide for their families.”

Besides Maria’s Bakery staff, 45 other groups of women throughout the Nineveh Plains have received vocational training from Samaritan’s Purse, with some participating over a two- to three-year period.

In many cases, the communities recognize that these new endeavors may be difficult for the women and offer to help. The government officials who frequent Maria’s Bakery have said, “We support you. If anyone bothers you or you lose any of the items from your shop, just come to us.”

Restoring Dignity Across Iraq

In 2019, this women’s vocational project began by giving seeds to women to grow kitchen gardens in their homes. It expanded in 2020 to train the same women how to pickle vegetables and make jams and jellies for market. Besides this training in food processing, other groups learned dairy production skills such as how to make cheese and ghee, or hatchery management to care for ducks, quail, or chickens.

The women enjoy baking together.

“It’s important to these women because often they’re at home, they’re not a part of the community or engaged in what’s going on outside of their doors,” Sarah said. “This helps them see that they can add value to their community, that they have skills and talents and worth.”

These intrinsic rewards are all benefits in addition to the poverty-alleviating income generated by the business. Profits usually go toward family necessities like food and clothing.

“To see them come through these trainings and these programs and sell their products,” said Matthew Nowery, Samaritan’s Purse country director for Iraq. “The pride you see in their eyes, the dignity that’s restored—it’s beautiful!”

Pray for Hiba, Farah, and the other moms, wives, and sisters who participate in vocational training with Samaritan’s Purse. Ask God to bless their businesses and make them profitable.

“This program is about restoration,” Sarah said, “restoring women and their skills, gifts, and talents from hard pasts to a hopeful future.”

*Name changed for security

Hiba weighs some items for an afternoon customer.