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Return and reintegration in times of COVID-19 | “When I landed back in Erbil, I felt I could breathe again”

A family joins forces to restart their lives in Kurdistan amidst the COVID-19 pandemic – and to challenge a traditional approach to beauty services

Shaho came back to Kurdistan on the eve of the coronavirus pandemic © ETTC

Shaho returned from Germany with his big sister, mother and father in December 2019. As the family was about to start their new business in Erbil, the world suddenly came to a standstill in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic. But they never thought of giving up.

A road to Germany

“Before we left for Germany, like any usual teen my age, I was living a pretty good life, going to high school. One day we decided to go to Germany because of my sister’s disability,” says Shaho, now 21, as we meet on Skype right after Kurdistan eases full lockdown measures. He admits that purchasing four flight tickets to Europe and obtaining a regular visa came at a huge cost: “We had to sell everything we had in our life – our car, our house – all of that for Rezhna’s sake.”

Shaho recalls that landing in Berlin was very different from what he had heard about life in Europe. “They said that in Germany everything is easy, especially if you had a handicapped person with you. But it is hard to live in an asylum centre.” After careful consideration of Rezhna’s medical file, the family’s claim for asylum was rejected. Seven months on, they took a decision to return home.

Homecoming

The social workers in Germany helped the family with the logistics of the return and informed them about the ERRIN programme. “The moment we came back it was like, you are able to breathe again,” Shaho recalls. “When you go home, you know you have a backup there, you are not alone anymore. It is my language, my country.”

A week after landing back in Kurdistan, Shaho sought support from the ERRIN’s local partner, the European Technology and Training Centre (ETTC). Initially, the reintegration assistance was offered exclusively to Shaho and his sister. But after a thorough explanation of the complex family situation, the organisation reached out to the German government who extended the grant to the parents, too.

Shaho says that the assistance received from the ERRIN programme exceeded his expectations. “The welcome was overwhelming. ETTC helped us in every way, also mentally. When I came back, I just had the ambition of working again. But I did not know how to start. When we sat down together, they gave me a lot of great ideas.”

Shaho decided to challenge a traditional approach to beauty services in Kurdistan © ETTC

Before leaving for Germany, Shaho’s family run a beauty centre, a fairy successful business dating back to 1990s – Shaho proudly emphasises that his mother was the first person to open these kind of services in Erbil. ETTC suggested they should capitalise on the experience, adding on new business and marketing ideas to create a state of the art, modern salon.

“ETTC did not tell us, ‘Oh you came back, now you are starting from zero.’ No. They said, ‘You came back for something better, you came back with experience, you saw how things work.’”

Back in the day, the salon offered only women-to-women services, as men working in such enterprises were not socially accepted. But Shaho explains that after seeing mixed services in Europe, he told ETTC that he wanted to actively help his mother in running the business: “And they said I could work with her, as the culture was a bit different, and that I could change the culture as well, that it was all in my hands. So this is what I did. I also now hire two male staffers, one from Syria, one from Lebanon.”

The centre, also functioning as a cosmetic store, boasts a dedicated handicraft stand, run by Shaho’s sister. She makes her own jewellery and sells it to on the spot, which allows her to work while taking care of her wellbeing.

“We provide everything that a woman needs to feel more beautiful and appreciated. You choose. Hairdressing, makeup, facials, waxing. Everything that a hair-beauty salon should have,” laughs Shaho.

A brand new model in times of COVID-19

The official opening of the centre in March 2020 clashed with the very beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. But Shaho faced this challenge with a huge dose of optimism:

“I can’t complain. Coronavirus is not affecting my business alone, but the entire world. There are so many people whose situation is worse than mine,” he says.

Shaho explains that even despite the lockdown is now over, the society is still afraid to spend money, uncertain about the future. But thanks to a large base of regular customers his mother had acquired before the move, they could still count on the old clients upon their return. This made it slightly easier to sustain the activity, even though at the peak of the pandemic, between March and June 2020, the salon only remained open for approximately 20 days.

Shaho says that the key to success is the family working together © ETTC

Shaho also stresses that additional investment is needed also to apply necessary sanitary measures in the aftermath of the pandemic: “You need to buy masks, gloves, disinfectants, which is now pretty expensive. The prices have gone higher.”

He believes that despite the unprecedented situation, future success is only a matter of hard work and motivation:

“During times like this, you can just take time to improve your skills and teach yourself things you did not know before. You should find positivity in the most negative things.”

 

“All I want is just a happy family”

Shaho dreams about continuing his mother’s legacy and developing the family business into a brand recognised across the entire Kurdistan. “I will write ‘since 1990.’ It is a great thing. That is why I am relieved, as I am not starting this business solo. I have the backing of my mom; she’s my expert and my guide.” He also wishes to expand the centre by adding an offer addressed at men, including barbering services.

Asked about his advice for people who think about going abroad, he responds after a moment of reflection: “Once you go to another country, you will start appreciating things that you took for granted back home. Friends, family. Do not ever say that you won’t come back. It is impossible to forget the place you were born in.” In the face of a challenge of starting anew in times of the pandemic, Shaho says they have never lost hope and optimistically look into the future: “We are starting from zero, but we come together as a family. All I want is just a happy family. When they are happy, my life is ok for me.”

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In response to unprecedented challenges related to COVID-19, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has decided to grant returnees coming back from Germany an additional COVID-19 assistance of EUR 200,00 per single person / EUR 500,00 per family within the framework of ERRIN programme, until further notice.

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