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Pursuing a Passion While Empowering the People of Erbil

I had the pleasure of meeting Znara Ahmed on Zoom and she opened up to me about the power of art and what it has meant to her. It is people like Znara that motivate me to face life’s difficult challenges. She does not let cultural norms or politics get in the way of her passion. War made life in Damascus too dangerous to remain there anymore, Znara Ahmed fled to Erbil, Iraq with her family. She left her career as an artist and member of the faculty of the Art Institute of Damascus not knowing what was ahead. When she arrived in Kurdistan she found a dearth of art education and activities for children. The local community did not prioritize art perhaps due to their own post-conflict suffering and economic hardship. Znara’s thirst to create and teach art grew even stronger through her ordeal as a displaced person.


Believing in the healing power of art and its role in healing trauma, Znara sought to build a place for people of all ages to experience the creative expression central to her life. A friend mentioned the Five One Labs Female Founders Fellowship program to Znara and in 2018 she was selected to participate in the business incubator. Znara learned the business skills necessary to develop her idea and bring it to life. Five One Labs taught her to write a business plan and market her gallery, although she admitted that she continues to find marketing a challenge. She gained an understanding of the role social media plays to attract local students and expand her reach. One of the most important and yet unforeseen aspects of the program was growing a network of other entrepreneurs like her, who all pursued a concept they were drawn to. With her own gallery serving the public she said, “My goal [accomplishes] how can I give people what Five One Labs gave me.”


When Znara formed Sêv Gallery she chose to create a social enterprise, a model that imbues “innovations that disrupt the status quo and transform our world” according to the Skoll Foundation. She finds herself in the overlap between for-profit and non-profit space as she seeks to attract the underserved and marginalized. Targeting people of all ages, Znara is addressing a need to construct a sense of community. Prior to the COVID pandemic, she collaborated with schools to teach youth and bring them into her classes. She also opened a class specially for special needs students with additional volunteer support. She spoke to me about how different mediums may be used to develop specific skills with this population of children who are misunderstood. “Art is medicine,” says Znara. For all children, she says art helps them become more flexible and builds confidence.


Ultimately, she impresses upon all students that art is not only about creating something beautiful or expressing shared humanity, but it’s an economic opportunity and holds monetary value. For youth the skills they have assimilated may prepare them for a future career or may result in a gift for a loved one. Women in Znara’s classes learn that they can commoditize their talent and services resulting in a sustainable livelihood. Through this message, Znara extends one of the greatest takeaways for her from the Five One Labs experience – women are empowered to pursue economic opportunities for themselves and their families.


I was completely drawn in by Znara’s love of art and understanding of how it can transform lives indiscriminately. She followed her dreams after her life was completely uprooted. As I seek next step in my career, people like Znara give me the courage to leap and not let fear stand in the way.


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