(WOMENSENEWS)–After breakfast one morning Kamila heard the gate rattle. She had been up since 6:30 finishing the beading on a dress for Ali. The girls looked around to see whether anyone was expecting a visitor before asking Rahim to see who was there. They waited anxiously until their brother returned to the sitting room with a tall woman with long brown hair and one of the saddest but most serene faces Kamila had ever seen. Kamila guessed she was around 30 years old.

"Kamila Jan," said Rahim, "our guest is here to see you."

Kamila held out her hand and kissed the stranger in the traditional Afghan show of respect, three times on alternating cheeks.

"Hello, I am Kamila," she said. "How are you? May I help you with something?"

The woman was pale and looked exhausted. Light brown circles hung beneath her eyes.

"My name is Sara," she said. "I’ve come here hoping you might have some work." She stared down at her feet while her words came out in a slow and melancholy succession. "My cousin’s neighbor told me that you are running a tailoring business here with your sisters and that you are a very kind woman. She said that your business is doing well and that perhaps you could use some help."

Just then Laila arrived and handed a glass of steaming tea to the visitor. She moved a small silver bowl filled with bright taffy candies in front of their guest.

"Please, sit down," Kamila urged, pointing toward the floor.

Sara lowered herself onto a pillow. Gripping her glass tightly, she began to explain how she had ended up in Kamila’s sitting room.

"My husband died two years ago," she said, her gaze focused on the tasseled corner of the carpet. "He was the director of the high school Lycee Ariana. One afternoon he came home from school saying he didn’t feel well. He went to the doctor that afternoon to see what was wrong and he was gone a day later."

Children to Support

Kamila nodded, warmly urging her guest to continue.

"Since then, my three children and I have been living with my husband’s brothers here in Khair Khana. My daughter is 5 and she is disabled. My sons are 7 and 9. My husband’s family is very kind, but there are 15 of us at home to support and now my brothers-in-law are facing their own problems."

"I have to find a way to support my children," Sara told Kamila. "I don’t know what else to do, or where else to go. My husband’s family can’t care for us much longer and I don’t want to be a burden to them all. I must find a job."

Pausing only long enough to take a sip of tea and to make certain that Kamila was still listening, she went on: "I am not an educated woman and I’ve never had a job before. But I know how to sew and I will do a good job for you. I promise."

At first Kamila was too moved to speak. The Taliban took control of Kabul in September 1996 and everyone who had remained in the city had a similar story. Lately she had been feeling a growing sense of responsibility to do as much as she possibly could to help. Her father had told her, and her religion had taught her, that she had a duty to support as many as she was able. Right now that meant she must quickly build upon the modest successes they had achieved so far. This business was her best–and right now her only–hope for helping her community.

"Let’s get to work, then," Kamila said, regaining her composure and finding comfort in her own practical approach. "What we need most right now is a supervisor who can watch over everything and help me make sure all the orders are filled and the sewing is done well."

Sara, now smiling for the first time since she walked through the door, would be their first official employee.

A New Plan

It wasn’t long before the demand for work outpaced the orders Kamila was receiving from shopkeepers. She now received visits almost daily from young women who were trying to help out their families. Most of them were girls whose high school and university studies had been cut short by the Taliban’s arrival, but some of them, like Sara, were a bit older.

She didn’t know how she was going to find a place for all of them, but she was determined to. With the city’s economy shrinking and almost no other chances for women to earn money, how could she turn them away?

As she approached her sister Malika’s room to wish her a good night, an idea occurred to Kamila. We are seamstresses, yes, but we are also teachers. Isn’t there a way we could use both talents to help even more women? And then those women could help us grow our tailoring business so that there would be more work for everyone.

We should start a school, she thought to herself as she stood in the hallway, or at least a more formal apprenticeship for young women who would learn to sew and embroider with us. We’ll teach them valuable skills which they can use here or with other women, and while we’re teaching them, we’ll be building an in-house team that can help us fill large orders quickly–as many as we can secure.

She stopped in front of Malika’s door, lost in her dream. Most of all, she thought, we won’t have to turn anyone away. Even the young ones who have no experience and aren’t qualified to work yet can join our training program and work for a salary helping us with our orders as soon as they are able. If we have our own school, then no one who comes to our gate will leave without a job.

She had discovered her plan.

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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow and deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2004 she left ABC News to earn her MBA at Harvard, where she began writing about women entrepreneurs in conflict and post-conflict zones. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Financial Times, Ms. Magazine and she recently wrote the Newsweek cover story on Hillary Clinton. "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana" is her first book. For more on Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, visit: www.gaylelemmon.com

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The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe

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