Doing good and looking sharp at ZAAHNA
The peaceful town of Warren is half-a-world away from war-ravaged Afghanistan, but the home of Wendy Summer on a winding rural road here is the headquarters for a venture that’s vastly improving the lives of women and children there.
Summer’s spacious sunroom is packed with luxurious scarves, shawls, sweaters, and duster coats; tapestries, runners and blankets, all hand-woven of the finest wools, silks, cottons, and linens by women from Afghanistan and other conflict-affected countries.
Through her company, ZAANHA, which means “women” in an Afghani dialect, Summer buys the fashions directly from female artisans overseas—helping them build their own businesses—and then sells the goods at home parties around the United States. About 25 percent of the proceeds go to the ZAANHA fund, a non-profit that supports education for Afghan children.
“It’s the most rewarding thing I could ever imagine doing,” says Summer, who worked for 30 years in advertising and gave up her own lucrative agency in 2003. Says Summer: “I’m deliriously overjoyed when the kids come running up to me and say, ‘Guess what, Auntie Wendy? I can read! Guess what? I know how to use a computer!’ These are kids who have a true hunger to learn, who have nothing and appreciate everything.”
A warm breeze swirled across the fresh-cut grass and twinkling in-ground pool, through the Cape-style home Summer bought in 1993, where her little white Maltese pups, Suzee and Willow, trotted around after her. “It’s quite a different world over there,” she says. “The people I work with are the poorest of the poor, yet they’re loving, kind, and beautiful—the antithesis of the Taliban or other extremist groups we read or hear about. I fell in love with them on my first visit.”
That was in 2006, when she traveled to Afghanistan with Bpeace, a non-governmental organization that helps women in post-war countries grow their businesses. “I went to the market in Kabul and was mesmerized by these travel coats,” she recalls. “I bought 12 of them. I got back to Connecticut, and everybody wanted one. I thought, hmmm, I can start a business that will have multiple layers of goodness.”
Hence, ZAANHA’s slogan, “Glamour. For Good.” It’s a double entendre, because buying these pieces is not only doing a good deed to help people in need, but also acquiring “beautiful, sumptuous, classic fashions, of such high quality that they will last you a lifetime and beyond; for good,” she says.
Since the business started becoming profitable four years ago, Summer has raised over $65,000 to help Afghans in several ways, including: sending dozens of children to a private school in Kabul; sponsoring “working street children,” paying the families so that they can attend school instead; and establishing a new school of her own in a village outside Kabul for girls who are not allowed to travel to the capital by themselves.
That school, called Roya’s School, is named after Roya Ahmadi, a mentee of Summer’s who is teaching a new generation of girls. In a recent letter to Summer, Roya wrote, “I hope you will be happy with us and you will be proud of us … We sincerely believe that under your leadership this school will continue to touch many young lives. We would like to say a big thank you for your care, love and help.”
“It’s all intertwined. Not only are we employing women to make these products, but the merchants are benefiting by selling their yarns and knitting materials. More jobs means less violence,” says Summers, wrapping an impossibly soft, hand-spun, tiger-print, cashmere-and-silk scarf around her neck.
In September, Summer will also start selling “snap bracelets,” straight bands of thin metal covered in fabric, which are slapped against the wearer’s forearm, causing the band to spring and wrap around the wrist. They’re embroidered by Afghan women, and 100 percent of the proceeds will go to educate street children. “The women make money so they can feed their families.”
The bracelets will cost $10, enough to provide five children with six notebooks, three pens, and three pencils, she says. “Forty-six percent of Afghanis are under the age of 15. If we want peace, we need to start with the children. And believe me, they want it, too.”