A Corner of the Universe: Dara’s Story

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Like many hopeful new graduates around the world, Dara wanted to take a leap of faith. In 2013, after earning her bachelor’s degree in interior design, she decided to move to a new city in search of adventure and opportunity.

Originally from Homs, a city in western Syria, Dara packed her belongings and headed to Damascus on her own to start her career. Like many young professionals, this marked the first time she lived away from her family, who was now 160 kilometres away. But just as she was settling into her new-found independence and a difficult new job, revolution sparked in Syria.

Rising insecurity eventually made travel a risky affair, and Dara’s visits to visit her loved ones in the country became less frequent. Her new home, a small room in the historical part of Damascus, quickly became a sanctuary and she decided to be deliberate about transforming it into a haven. She repurposed a small corner of her room as a personal reprieve — a space with her most treasured items where she could relax and express herself.

“I have always moved from one apartment to another as there have been a lot of changes, but I have been always able to create that corner, a place where I feel home and secure,” Dara said, explaining how she first started using her design skills for peace of mind.

From this practice, a new venture was born: a side-business Corners. Dara started working with clients to design similar spaces in their homes. She was eventually commissioned by a local restaurant to design tables and chairs with upcycled materials. The project was growing steadily, and Damascus was beginning to feel more like home until the conflict intensified in 2015. When a missile hit her neighbourhood, she had no option but to leave. She made it to Homs one last time and then fled to Turkey to meet her brother.

“I remember the last day in Syria, it was a cold night in winter,” Dara recalled. “I could not comprehend the idea that I was actually leaving. Memories passed in front of my eyes like a film reel as I was watching the road. That goodbye brought a big change in me. I was heading to a new life, a start from scratch.”

The upheaval meant Dara had to put her dreams on hold temporarily, to lay down a foundation in a different country — the language and customs were different, and her family was now even farther away. But the young, determined entrepreneur is always able to find a solution, and she was soon back on course. In 2017, she was part of a team that was accepted into an entrepreneurship training grant programme, supported by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at Inno Campus. The mobile campus, hosted by Gaziantep University, comprises of a workshop, class room, meeting room and fab lab.

The two-and-a-half-month course at Inno Campus has already trained 67 young entrepreneurs like her in three Turkish cities — Gaziantep, Izmir Sanliurfa. Trainees learned valuable skills in design thinking, marketing, fundraising and other business essentials. Volunteer practitioners came in to teach the students about specialty subjects, and all participants were assigned mentors — seasoned professionals who helped them build their enterprises from the ground up. Half of the participants were Syrian while half were Turkish, allowing both communities to make connections and build partnerships.

After completing the training, Dara and her team of three other young Syrian professionals — who specialized in marketing, computer programming and finance — won a USD 7,000 grant from IOM to jumpstart Corners. The team used the seed money to invest in raw materials and equipment, as well as advertising and marketing costs.

Like any business, Corners has to go through growing pains. Unfortunately, Dara and her teammates also had to struggle with the trials of making Turkey their home: obtaining residency permits, securing employment and learning the language, to name just a few. But they are sure of their idea and committed to making it work.

“The project does not come only from my experience as a migrant. It was an idea for all people who face daily pressures of life or financial difficulties,” Dara explained.

“It is for every person who feels unrest in the place [she or he] is in to have their own corner for comfort. Creating my own space has not been easy here but life must go on. This is what I was trying to do with my project: create comfort for each person in the same way I did for myself.”

The Corners team now designs alternative furniture with upcycled or recycled materials using laser and 3D printers, available at the Inno Campus fab lab. They have designed interiors for the workspaces of international businesses in Gaziantep — such as a Japanese robotics company — that creatively express the personality and brand.

“In ten years, my vision is to design for cafes, individuals, and big businesses across Turkey,” Dara added. “I believe in my dreams, it took me some time to reach this point and it started as just a vision, but now after five years it is real. I have already taken the first and second steps, the hardest ones.”

Dara is well on her way to making her long-term vision a reality. A few months ago, the business relocated to Istanbul where the demand is higher for chic interior design, propelling their business to the next level.

A new office space has been secured, and Dara is in the process of registering Corners in the new city. Mentors from the IOM-sponsored programme will continue to guide the team as they scale the business. She has also started serving as a leader for other young professionals, teaching drawing to young people preparing for architecture and design exams at Gaziantep University.

Her advice to aspiring designers: “You will feel afraid at many stages, but this fear will take you to the right direction. Work hard for your goal and you will reach it. Fear makes us creative. Believe in yourself.”