By Tamara Al Khaled
No one would have believed it could have led to this. When Reham Arman and her friend and partner in a modest clothing online shop called “Ranah” went to Berlin by train to attend a start-up event they were invited to in the capital, they could never have anticipated what would happen.
Reham being a close friend of mine, she told me the story herself one morning over coffee. They were going back to Essen and Salma Chbib, also an entrepreneur and the owner of Hilal Shop, was headed back to her home in Düsseldorf, so they were on the same train. It was raining outside and Reham glanced for a moment at the relaxing view of the German green countryside from the train´s window. The scenery was calming but monotone to her eyes, the drops of rain slowly and repeatedly falling onto the window. A small drop of rain fell as she was lost in her thoughts, she watched it stop briefly before it continued its path down to another drop of rain, taking it with it and continuing till the whole drops became one long water streak. “Impact. ” She thought to herself. That was the word that at the time came to her mind. Suddenly but unmistakably.
Suddenly, the way inspiration sometimes strikes, she had had an idea. She spoke out in her serious yet enthusiastic manner, “Salma, she said to her newly met friend, why don´t we all come together and make something like this event we just went to…but on a larger scale? Something that would still go on beyond a single gathering?”
Salma, who studied politics and had owned and run her own business for several years at that, was well-placed to understand the strength that could result when several successful people came together with an idea. “I am interested Reham…lets meet up in Düsseldorf again and discuss this…let’s see where it can get us.”
Three weeks later, Reham, her business-partner Nour Kadibalban, Salma and Lynn had decided to form a women´s league they called Raidat, which in Arabic means women pioneers. After a few meetings in several cafes in Essen, some Syrian and others German, the four young women decided to register their brand-new league officially. The decision that came naturally to them alongside the paperwork was to host a gala in Essen in order to launch Raidat.
I reached the gala at noon and was truly amazed by the place itself. The Prenses Palace in Essen which they had chosen to book for a whole day for the gala looked more beautiful than most wedding venues I had seen in Germany. The luxurious and spacious hall greeted all 360 women who were invited with a forest of chandeliers, flickering against the elegant black paint of the ceiling.
I remember losing track of time in the bazaar; all 20 stands were spectacular. Besides two fashion shops who held busy stands with collections of modest chic women outfits, such as Ranah, the bazaar ranged all the way from hijab shops to a stand that displayed a variety of organic honey, another that sold oriental ornaments, such as Arabic calligraphy paintings and beautiful oriental coffee sets, besides which was the stand of the well-known Arabic children online library. The bazaar was such a delight that visitors, myself included, didn’t find it easy to interrupt shopping when Reham kindly asked us through the microphone to take our seats so that the talks could start.
However, as soon as we took to our seats around the elegant tables, each of which was ornamented by a nice crème-colored tablecloth and a splendid vase of fresh flowers, the hall fell silent as the four founders of Raidat arrived.
Dressed in an emerald evening-dress, Reham was the first to speak. “I address myself today to you, she said, to thank you all for coming today. Today is an important day for us, as we launch our league. A league that is from women addressed to women. Raidat has the vision of empowerment for all women regardless of her origins or religion. To each one of you who has fought hard to establish something for herself in a country that is her adoptive country. For each and every woman, be it the young girl who still hasn’t discovered her career path and is still considering her options in life, as well as for the mother of children who–juggling motherhood and personal aspirations–has come a long way, learned a language that at first was completely stranger to her, started a business from scratch, or is dreaming to. To all of those we say: we hear you and we are coming to light today for your sake.”
Each time that Reham would come to the end of a paragraph, or an idea was completed, she would hand over the microphone to Salma, who as a native speaker would translate it all in German. The press being present, as the WDR were filming, made the whole scene even more imposing.
Reham went on explaining Raidat´s vision. As she spoke the words started taking a shape of themselves in the venue, the ideas she spoke about were so innovative, so true and yet so unprecedented among the Arab community in Germany, that I couldn’t help but link their words to bright images of hope, support and—ultimately–of success. The success I saw as I heard Raidat´s talk wasn’t just an individual one; it was much greater than that. It was a network as in their motto “Women´s Network”. I saw in the sparkle of their eyes a vision for us all, for the women of Syrian origin who came to Germany ten years ago, studied and in most cases became German citizens.
Meanwhile, Nour took her turn to speak and stressed the fact that Raidat wasn’t founded just for Syrian women, it was addressed to all women in need of a supporting women´s network. It was founded by four women who each excelled in her own field. For while Reham spoke a refined Arabic that reflected the medical major she had completed in Damascus, before then taking the path of business with her online shop Ranah, Salma spoke native German as she was born and raised in Germany as she told us herself, while Lynn Kadamani–a professional photographer and a media and visual communications major–was fluent in English just as much as her Arabic mother tongue, as she had lived and studied media in Australia.
The four young women standing on stage reflected very well, I thought to myself, the Syrian diaspora of our day and time. Both educated and modern, they were mostly wearing a hijab paired with long-sleeved elegant evening dresses which made of the event a true gala. In addition to having invited all 20 startups to take part in the bazaar and, therefore, gain much-needed visibility, Raidat had also invited a handful of famous social-media influencers, such as Lina Melhem known by her Instagram name “Mama Lina” who owns an online shop well known among the Syrian community in Germany, a shop that specializes in personalized baby names paintings and other Arabic-written home decors. In addition to her online shop, Lina Melhem is a famous blogger who has a much-admired Instagram page on which she shares bits of her motherhood journey and writes book reviews about childcare and child psychology books. She represents the modern Arab family in Germany who takes pride in teaching her children reading in Arabic and instilling the Islamic morals in them, but at the same time practices all the European-style activities such as mountain hiking, bicycle riding in the forest and ballet courses. I think that was in part one the reasons for her wide reputation among my Arab friends in Germany. The influences that were present also included–among others–Dima Al Najjar, a well-known psychologist who was given the time to deliver a speech at the gala. In her speech, Al Najjar spoke about a theme very relatable to the main ideas of the gala itself, which is success and the way we approach it as individuals. She spoke about how we should–as businesswomen or success driven women in general–always thrive and follow our dreams without at the same time losing our awareness of what is really motivating us. For while our love for success and our deep intention to return to society and to be an effective part of it is a noble intention to have, it shouldn’t become a pressing need“ to succeed and prove ourselves to others at all costs–even at the detriment of our mental and overall health and well-being. The FOMO (fear of missing out) linked to the need for more and more followers on social media, for rapid and sometimes unrealistic gratification that is often the trap many online-based bloggers fall into when they seek success, is the kind of success Al Najjar warned against. Our value as individuals is- she stressed- inherent. It is not linked to our “material” accomplishments, nor should it be, as all women know all too well how many of our accomplishments go unseen during the day while we strive to provide support and meet the many needs of our children and families. Our identities are multiple and more sophisticated than can be summarized on a CV, which is what we always should keep in mind as we work towards our professional dreams.
Raidat was founded in order to seek those professional and social networking aspirations. During the event, the founders shared their vision of implying a principle in sociology called “social capital”. Towards the end of her talk, and after she had introduced the league and explained how it was intended towards the empowerment of women, Reham Arman mentioned this principle: “We at Raidat are going to base our league on the principle of social capital. Through holding regular meetings, workshops and cultural events, we are going to encourage women to have a positive impact on society, to play an active role. Moreover, the network that is going to take place from our meetings will ultimately make collaborations come into being, business and non-business ones. It’s the contact that counts, the human connections. While social media has surely provided us with a platform to meet and chat virtually, we in Raidat aim at combining both the virtual and the genuine face to face contact, the one where the tone of voice and body language play a role.”
Social capital is based on networks of human relationships which, once established, can elevate the quality of life of people who are part of it, through reciprocate services they do for each other in daily life out of mutual sympathy, shared knowledge that is transmitted by the genuine getting together and talking about things, and support and trust that is proven to make a difference in the mental health and self-esteem of the people included. In short, it “emphasizes specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks. It therefore creates value for the people who are connected, and for bystanders as wellthe social capital information, and cooperation associated with social networks.”
After the talks, Salma announced the buffet could start. A delicious Syrian buffet of stuffed grape leaves, kibbeh in yoghurt, mandi and tabouleh, all in beautiful golden serving plates, awaited us. As we ate and spoke together, I glanced at the tables all around me and was overwhelmed by a feeling of excitement for the future. This league was a start for something new and good, I was sure. For it was through its creation that all of us were bonded together by a strong sense of shared identity as well as of a potential common future. All of us women of Syrian origin building our way up in a country that slowly but surely became our new home.
 Thomas Sander, The Social Capital .