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Aid to Artisans Group Uses Web to Connect with Iraqi Entreprenuers
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A lot of attention has been paid to whether the United States is doing enough to rebuild Iraq since the war began. Those efforts might include fixing roads, repairing schools or making sure running water reaches villages.  But here in Connecticut, a West Hartford-based group has been chosen by the U.S. State Department to help Iraqi women become self-sufficient.

The offices of the non-profit group, Aid to Artisans, are off New Britain Avenue in West Hartford. The organization works to promote fair trade around the world.

On Wednesday, inside a conference room there --consultant Karen Gibbs launches into her powerpoint presentation for six Iraqi women.

"Okay, so let's rock and roll.  So, what we're going to talk about now is creating effective marketing materials."

The Iraqi women aren't in the conference room with Gibbs. They're hearing and seeing her through a computer inside the US Embassy in Baghdad. The hour and a half training or webinar uses laptops, webcams, and Twitter feeds to connect Aid to Artisans' staff with a tech guy from the state dept in Washington D.C. to the room in Baghdad where the women sit with translators.

Moira Deasy, who directs Training for Aid to Artisans says the project is the first of its kind. And the non-profit hopes to launch an online university to reach even more entrepreneurs in Iraq and around the world.

"And then things happen like the power goes out and the phone lines go out and the internet goes out to the entire Embassy, so we can't control those things.

The training had begun much earlier in the morning until a sandstorm knocked Baghdad offline for about one hour. But once the connection was restored...Gibbs started where she left off. Here is what the webinar actually sounded like as Gibbs talks about the importance of the artisans using hang tags on their products

"A hang tag also that's actually signed by the name of the artisan who made it, adds that extra connection, right? They see that signature of the person, 'Oh my goodness, a signature written in Arabic.' "

Later the state department employee, Ron Melvin, in Baghdad relays to Gibbs why the women, who are part of non governmental organizations or NGOs, are taking part in the business training.

"One of the main points that's coming across is that several of the NGOs are involved in supporting the widows and the orphans of the community. And that's an important story, I think, that will come across especially to the American market."

One of the webinar trainees is Halima Faraj, a widow whose husband was killed last year.  In a webchat with reporters, she talks about how, as a member of the Iraqi business women union, she hopes to share the training with twenty other women who are trying to support their families. 

She and the other women are interested in marketing products like carpets, fine art, and fashion accessories.

But Gibbs says the women are just learning the first steps of launching their own businesses and they're dealing with challenges that are unique to Iraq's current situation.

"Shipping options, whose actually shipping from Iraq these days on any kind of commercial level? So they're going to have all that kind of infrastructure that's going to have to be in place that from the sounds of it and talking to them, is far from it."

Meanwhile, Aid to Artisans hopes to continue its training with the Iraqi group.  Some are already using grants through the U.S. State department to help with start up costs of launching their own businesses.

To learn more about Aid to Artisans: http://www.youtube.com/user/AidToArtisans