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Fair Trade improves lives of artisans

By Mary Stamp

After settling in Spokane 40 years ago, Naseem and Nissar Shah, who grew up in the village of Srinagar in Kashmir, India, found when they returned home in the 1970s that family, friends and other people in their village struggled because of poverty and war.

Naseem and Nasreem Shah
Nasreen and Naseem Shah display some of the Kashmiri crafts they sell here.

For the last three years, they have been among the fair-trade vendors who sell hand-made products through the Jubilee International Marketplace at First Presbyterian Church in Spokane.

At first the Shahs brought back traditional crafts—lacquered papier-maché boxes, animals, eggs, candleholders, coasters, knitted purses and woven wool rugs by local artisans—as gifts for their friends in the United States.

Tourism had been a strong market in Kashmir, allowing artisans to make a modest living.  Decades of war, however, led to a decline in tourism and living conditions.  India and Pakistan still fight over the state of Kashmir.

“I remember that Kashmir was a paradise on earth with the Himalayan Mountains, lakes and four seasons,” she said.

In the mid 1990s, they began buying crafts to help families in nearby villages.  They paid in advance, because the artisans needed the money.

“It’s the main livelihood for four families,” she said.

Along with their jobs, the Shahs then decided to start a small business and sell the crafts at craft shows in Spokane on weekends.

Before they learned about fair trade, the Shahs sold items at local fall and Christmas season craft shows and at the Fall Folk Festival in November.  Eventually, they also began to sell leather purses and jewelry they made with beads from India.

For 14 years, Naseem has worked for Head Start, helping children and low-income families in Spokane.  Nissar graduated from Gonzaga University in engineering and works in that field.

Naseem’s father, who had come to the United States in the 1950s, taught civil engineering at Gonzaga.  Naseem met Nissar when he came from the same area of Kashmir to study engineering.

Naseem studied biology and chemistry, graduating from Gonzaga University in 1978.  She worked as a medical technician before raising her family.  Later she took classes at Spokane Falls Community College in early childhood education.

Nasreen, the youngest of their three daughters, was nine when she first visited relatives in Kashmir.  She helps her parents with the Jubilee sale.

Now, she said, the original art form is on the decline as younger people do not carry on the traditions.  So the Shahs have fewer items, and the Jubilee sale fits their inventory. 

In addition, weight restrictions on what they bring back when they fly means they have to ship more of the items.

Members of their extended family no longer do the crafts because they go to school and work. 

Two families in another community now supply items.  The Shahs plan to go back to Kashmir next summer and purchase more.

Naseem said that people who come to the Jubilee sale seem to value the amount of work it takes to make the boxes and other papier-maché items.  She knows  the process for making them, because as a child, she watched people make things and then tried to make some herself.

“It’s a long process to mold the papier maché, smooth it, paint designs on it and lacquer it,” she said.

For Nasreen, who is working on a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, after earning a bachelor’s in psychology from Eastern Washington University in 2011, involvement is both a way to connect with her culture and a way to help impoverished people she has met in Kashmir.

“It renews our faith to be able to help them,” she said. 

“From the time I was little, the message was honed into me that the best thing to do to follow Mohammed, Peace Be Upon Him, is to help someone every chance I have.  Charity is one of the five pillars of Islam ingrained in me as a child.”

She also believes that any time people can gain understanding of different world views, beliefs and customs, they gain a better understanding of life and are enriched.

Nasreen finds that both understanding and enrichment happen at the Jubilee International Marketplace and at the Spokane Islamic Center, where people come from all over the world.

“There is a connection with overseas that builds a sense of community and appreciation,” Nasreen said.  “Each of us has our own stories of what we faced migrating here.

“People coming to the Jubilee sale can do something just by buying one item.  They can make a difference in the lives of people elsewhere,” she said. 

“We all work for a common cause:  to sell products to help people,” she added.

“Most of the income helps families pay to send their children to school, because there are no free, public schools there,” Naseem said.

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