While serving a third tour in Iraq last fall, Ty Reed, a soldier with the First Brigade, 4th Infantry Division out of Fort Hood, discovered something she couldn't ignore. The 32-year-old Fort Worth native was working on rebuilding projects in South Baghdad when a woman named Fatima approached. Not yet 30, the woman had lost her husband to a suicide bomber and was struggling to support her children.
She and more than two dozen other widows were in the same situation, she told Reed, and all of them had artistic skills such as basket-making, painting or leather-working. Could Reed help them find a way to earn a living? the woman wondered. That was the beginning of what's become Janan Collection, an effort by Reed and her sister, SMU graduate Teresa Nguyen, to import and sell the women's handicrafts.
"I felt I had to do something," Reed told Unfair Park at a reception for the artwork at Urban Dog Coffee on Wednesday evening. "These women don't want charity. They want to be empowered to be able to provide their families with food and shelter."
Since Reed returned from her tour in March, she and Nguyen have been ramping up the business by showing the artwork at places like Urban Dog and holding silent auctions for specific pieces. Starting May 9, they'll hold a series of online auctions in which anyone anywhere can bid on the collection.
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"Eventually, we want a warehouse," Nguyen says. "It's not just about selling the stuff, it's about getting their story out."
And, since most Iraqis don't want to buy traditional handicrafts and opt instead for Western décor, access to foreign markets is key.
The work on tour now includes traditional baskets, ornaments and jewelry made of leather, turquoise beads and gold, as well as paintings like Harvest Moon, a minaret-studded cityscape set against a glowing moon. The woman who painted Harvest Moon has an elementary school education, three children and lives, as most of the artists do, in a 300-square-foot home. The proceeds from just one painting, Reed said, will support the painter's family for at least a month.
"Everyone associates Iraq with war, but this is what Iraq is," Reed says, pointing to the artwork. "Iraqis are proud of their art and history."