Tajik Ex-Con Helps Prisoners Stitch Lives Back Together
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Atmiya Azimova is no ordinary employer -- she makes it her business to work with convicted killers, drug dealers, and fraudsters.
The 41-year-old former chemistry teacher, having served time in a Tajik prison herself for dealing drugs, changed the course of her life and now operates a successful blanket factory.
It gives her an opportunity to not only stay on the straight and narrow herself, but to help a workforce of current and former convicts find their own footing outside prison.
The mother of three was sentenced in 2014 to eight years in prison but was freed just six months later under an amnesty.
Today she looks back on her criminal past as "the biggest mistake of my life, trying to make easy money." Yet she also says her time in prison, during which her husband filed for divorce and her sons moved in with relatives -- allowed her to reflect on life and what she had put her family through.
She left prison with a dream -- and a plan to realize it with "honest work."
A veteran seamstress, Azimova worked out a business plan to start up a small factory to make bedcovers and blankets. "I've been making blankets since I was young," she tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service, noting that her grandmother was a seamstress as well.
She took classes on how to start a business and visited bazaars and shops to see what sold well.
It all helped her formulate her business model, which would include exclusively hiring female ex-cons or current prisoners on work release.
The idea was a hit, and in 2016 her project was awarded a special presidential grant aimed at supporting women's start-ups.
Azimova already had two old sewing machines at home, and the $1,300 grant she received was just enough to buy two more sewing machines, rent a small space in the city of Khujand, and purchase the materials needed to get her business started.
Her first client was a local hospital that was looking for affordable blankets and other textile products. Soon another hospital followed, and then a military unit placed an order.
Two years later, Azimova has moved her factory to a larger premises and hired 20 workers to meet growing demand.
Azimova attributes her success to selling good products at competitive prices. "We only use high-quality cotton for the blankets," she says. "The same is with the fabrics. The colors of our fabric don't bleed."
The convict turned entrepreneur says she is happy to be able to provide not only for herself, but for others in situations she once found herself in.
Employees who spoke with RFE/RL say they were repeatedly turned down for work upon leaving prison. In a country where jobs are hard to come by even for skilled professionals without a criminal record, former offenders stand little chance of finding work.
Not everyone hired at Azimova's blanket factory could sew going in -- many had to learn their craft from the ground up.
They receive between $55 and $170 per month, depending on hours worked and their experience. It's a competitive income in a country where the average monthly salary is around $150, although they have to pay about 20 percent of their income to the state as part of the conditions of their sentence.
The women are trained by Musharafaniso Nematova, a 69-year-old professional seamstress who has won three national embroidery contests.
Nearly a decade ago Nematova was arrested for murder and sentenced to 26 years in prison. Under an amnesty her sentence was changed to mandatory labor after eight years of incarceration.
"I don't work for the money, I've a large family that takes care of me," Nematova says. "I want to do something good for society and for the government. I teach sewing to these women because this job, this opportunity, will prevent them from committing a crime again."
Azimova's newest employee is Zebo Mirkamolova, who is in her early 20s. Mirkamolova was sentenced to two years of mandatory labor in a beating and disorderly conduct case.
Those sentenced to mandatory labor are usually allowed to live at home, but report to work at stations located within prison grounds. Azimova is among several private entrepreneurs in the northern Sughd Province that provide an option to work outside the prison walls, however.
The past two years were a period of positive change in Azimova's life. "I achieved 80 percent of my dreams and plans," she says.
The next step, she adds, is to move her growing business from a rented space to a custom-built factory. She has applied for a land allotment to construct a factory.
But even as her business grows, Azimova says, the door of her factory will remain open to former convicts looking for a second chance.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.