Leyla is a modern and educated Kurdish woman; a mother, wife, businesswoman, urban planner, artist, entrepreneur, believer, doer, fighter-that is only with and for PEACE. Before talking about her brand, she wants the world to know that she fought her way to independence. She adds that she earned every bit of her confidence, courage, hope, effort, and action with tremendous pain and challenge. She moved from a small Kurdish town in rural Turkey to Boston, USA. She is a true example of breaking the barriers and making a significant impact in life with success. Here she explains the motivation behind her influential, impressive, and inspiring entrepreneurial journey.
Life was already tough for me by living in an active war zone. My hometown, where I was born and raised, is located right on the border of Syria. I was born into war and learned to survive many powerful challenges that threatened my life. But, as humans, we are strong. We learn to survive. I had a reason to stay strong. I wanted to make this world a better place.
My hometown, known as Suruc, was in an emergency state between 1984 and 2004.
The war and its effects were reflected in daily life and education. Parents were terrified to send their daughters to school; I was the only girl in my class. On the other hand, the Kurdish militias recruited teenagers into the guerrilla movement in the mid-’90s. “Local” people were stuck in the middle of this reality. Experiencing poverty, lack of opportunities, and all other unfortunate events happening in my life, I developed a different sense of life as a kid. For my part, I have always considered myself a global citizen, and I believe that more will be achieved in the long run by implementing peace initiatives.
When the new government removed the ban in 2004, my parents decided to move out of the region to get a better education. There, I went to college and became more aware of so many other significant challenges that were waiting for me all the way long.
When the opportunity is given, there is nothing that humankind will not be able to do. We are full of energy, creativity, ambition, wonder, kindness, and will to change. I was provided an opportunity; to go to college. I became obsessed with books, mainly the information on women and human rights. Coming from a place where education, knowledge, and opportunities were limited, I felt myself in heaven in my new life setting, and I was looking forward to getting the best out of it. In the meantime, I had an opportunity to work with the World Women Organization, where I learned a lot about women’s rights. In my Kurdish culture, we were not allowed to be women. In many families, the situation is still the same; women are invisible. In many conservative and traditional families, women do not dine together with the men of the family or with guests. Women cannot talk and express themselves in any way. Women have no right to feel love, be loved, or express any form of love. Women have no right to pick their husbands. Young women usually get married between 13-and 18 yo. In my family, most of my female cousins are unschooled and got married around 13 or 14. The same faith was being prepared for me as well. I went through hell many times just because of this reason. People of our distant family said that I dishonored the entire family by going to school. I had to fight hard for it.
Shame and honor are two significant motivations of men to control women. These traumatic acts are described based on the woman’s body and her entire existence. Simply, you cannot have a male friend- never a boyfriend. Therefore many young women are murdered in the rural of my region. People have more opportunities to educate themselves in the cities, so this situation is getting much better, but unfortunately, it still exists, yes, even in my family.
So overall, when you look at the Kurdish communities living in rural Turkey, women do all the hard work, but they are constantly being held back from real life. Women are responsible for raising children, doing housework, taking care of the house, and caring for the elderly. Another fact about our culture is that we live altogether. Grandparents, uncles, cousins, and parents live all together. That is a beautiful community setting as everybody is very much connected, but the entire community relies on women’s power. And, yet they have no right to exist! For example, my female cousins, who are around my age, 36, have no right to stand up for themselves, talk about their feelings, or about their children who have children already. Being under the control of conservative and traditional man-oriented culture is a hardcore challenge. I know this for a fact.
After graduating from college, I made a drastic decision and moved to the USA with no English. It took a year for me to be able to talk and understand. But with hard work and dedication, I became fluent. I became more resilient over time.
I often started to think that what if I could provide an opportunity to the young women of my nation back at home—the women who got stuck in the traditional barriers and cultural limitations. There is, of course, no difference between women across the globe, but I was very familiar with the pain in my hometown in where it would be easier to start the change. So, with that fuel in my heart, I ended up finding my company, Bajer.
Fourteen million Kurds live in Turkey, with approximately twelve million living in east and south-east Anatolia; still, you don’t hear much about the Kurdish people because these areas are isolated and relatively very poor. For instance, we had no running water where I grew up. The water was provided to people once every week or ten days via a tanker truck for drinking and essential needs. My childhood era was marked by the “state of emergency” in my region, certainly one of the worst periods in our history, which lasted until 2004.
We have thousands of years of history in Mesopotamia as a Kurdish nation, so why not talk about all the positive and beautiful sides? That’s what Bajer Watches is all about.
Bajer” comes from the Kurdish word for “City,” a place of modern elegance. Growing up in a small Kurdish town on the Turkish border with Syria, traveling between the cities was unsafe and difficult during the 1990s. However, we were allowed to travel a couple of times, mainly around the festivals. When we planned to visit my aunt in the city, I could not sleep the whole night out of excitement. My new clothes and shoes were in my lap, and I was fell asleep dreaming about the city. The following day, walking towards the bus station, everybody knew that we were going to the town. Our clothes, shoes, and well-made hair were significant signs of our traveling to the city.
I named my company, Bajer, by thinking of those days. I want whoever wears Bajer to feel unique with that child’s same excitement and innocence. I created this venture to capture this feeling and share with others the complexity of the Kurds- how a group of people could be divided but diverse in richness.
It was not an easy path to take, but I took risks, and it is all well worth it. If I would not fail much, I could not be here today. I will create the same path for all the women and children in my region with less pain. It is all about providing an opportunity.
By having an opportunity to relocate to the USA, I became more educated and empowered. Finally, I was ready to take an actual step towards making this world a better place for all.
After many months of working on the idea and design concept, I was ready to move forward. With my years of savings, I started making initial designs and prototypes in 2019. I also participated in a program in management and leadership for young entrepreneurs and start-ups at MIT Sloan School of Management in Boston. Bajer Watches works with a small Swiss family business based in Chiasso, Switzerland, on the production side. I am not a fan of cheap products, so it was obvious to go for Swiss quality. I don’t want the parts to stop working after a year! I also love working with a family company; we support each other.
To produce the straps, I found a small family atelier in Ancona, Italy, to produce the straps. I was lucky that they were interested in the project: they spent months studying Kurdish culture! I design the patterns with a small team of designers. The motifs on the straps are inherited from our rug culture; they are the secret language among Kurdish women. I was inspired to bring those motifs on the straps based on a conversation I had with my grandmother when I was young.
Each collection is named after a Kurdish town. There is a choice of five colors of straps related to natural elements of Kurdish regions. For example, the vineyards and pistachio fields of the city of Urfa inspired our burgundy color. We got our forest green from the stems of the rich, dark leaves of the olive trees in Antep.
We also keep a diary in the Journal section on our website about Kurdish traditions. This is not my story; these are our stories.
The launch was planned for March 2020 during a Kurdish festival, Newroz, that symbolizes the rebirth of nature, but then the pandemic happened. So, finally, Bajer Watches was launched in October 2021.
Bajer provides opportunities to all the kids and women like me- who want to break barriers of their tradition to follow their path.
Bajer would be many women’s stories. We all can get stuck somewhere in life and may not realize how powerful we are as an individual. Bajer is an excellent example of self-awareness, hardworking, empowerment, providing opportunities, and connectedness. Many other Leyla’s are ready to start their journey like Bajer. I had a vision in my mind when I was a child, and now that vision has become a reality with Bajer. We could make this world a better place for all in our capacity. The scale and the setting can change, but the impact will be significantly practical. These kinds of small steps are massive changes for local communities. I am glad I have the opportunity to give back to the community that raised me.
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