Kazan, 12 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It's Saturday evening, the busiest time at the Al-Selam store.
Shop assistant: "How can I help you?"
Customer: "I like this dress so much."
Customer: "Yes, it's so nice for summer."
Customer: "My daughter will really like it."
Customer: "I like it so much."
Customers (leaving store): "Good luck, girls!"
Shop assistant: "Thank you. Goodbye!"
One of the owners of the Al-Selam store, Zulfia Makhsutova, is offering a new collection of clothes to regular customers. Six months ago, she couldn't even imagine owning a shop, let alone enjoying the work. But she made her choice, and her life changed.
"I was working for an organization funded by the government, and my salary was very low," she says. "I was worried, thinking to myself, 'Am I going to work for such little money my entire life?'"
She continues: "There was also another factor that influenced me a lot. My sister had left, and lived far away from us. This was very stressful for me. We had grown up together; we had always been together. I wanted to fill in the vacuum, and I started to look for new things to do. And now here I am. There's a saying: Whatever you do, it's all for the better."
"If you begin thinking about difficulties from the start, you will never start any business. I wouldn't have started it if I had known at that time what obstacles I would face. I would have been scared away."
As we talk, more customers come into the store. Some want to buy a wedding dress; others try on summer skirts. Zulfia, a former computer programmer, can now tell every woman who visits her store what would suit her best, with only a single glance.
She says the idea to open a clothing store for Muslim women was an obvious choice. "Girls started to wear headscarves in 1995. Some women wanted to change the way they dressed. We were so tired of walking around clothing stores looking for appropriate clothes [for Muslims]," she says. "It was my dream to be able to go to just one shop with clothes for Muslim women and buy everything I needed there. We had been waiting for a store like that for a long time. I came to realize that most business owners were men, and only women could understand a problem like this. That's why I thought a woman should open this kind of business. There are two of us, Golnaz and me. I suggested it to her, and she said, 'Let's do it.'"
Was it difficult? What obstacles did she have to overcome?
"Yes, it was difficult, it was difficult. This was a completely new area for us. We were not familiar with the demand for such clothes," Zulfia says. "The first thing that we had to do was to find a place for the store. We walked around the entire city of Kazan, every day, during lunchtime, because we both had jobs at that time. This went on for two months."
But why? Is Kazan not sufficiently developed for business?
"Yes, it is developed for business. Our problem was that we didn't know anything," she tells RFE/RL. "Now I know everything. At that time we were just looking for a nice place for the store -- we wanted it to be just the way we had imagined it. Now, when I look back, I think this [way of looking for a suitable location] wasn't very wise. I don't know. But if you begin thinking about difficulties from the start, you will never start any business. I wouldn't have started it if I had known at that time what obstacles I would face. I would have been scared away. On the other hand, you get excited and you think: 'I have overcome this obstacle. Will I handle the next one?'"
Paperwork, finances, buying and selling goods, taking care of her costumers -- this is Zulfia's everyday routine.
The idea is to turn the store into a successful business. Zulfia and her partner are planning to open another store. Zulfia says she's getting busier all the time, but she thinks it brings her freedom. She says she never regrets the choice that she made:
"I worked at a news agency before. Now I'm the boss," she says. "Freedom of action is something completely different. You do whatever you want and you take responsibility for it. It's different. Only those people who have ever experienced it can say what it feels like. I never regret what I have done."
So what kind of advice would Zulfia give our listeners?
"If you want to change your life, don't be scared," she says. "Close your eyes and just do it."
(This story was originally broadcast by RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service and was a finalist in RFE/RL's June 2005 Division of Broadcasting Innovation Excellence award for the "best story on youth at a crossroads.")
According to research by the Asian Development Bank and UNICEF, there are now more than 70,000 school-age children in Kyrgyzstan working to earn money for their families instead of attending school. RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service correspondent Jannat Toktosunova went to the Osh Bazaar in Bishkek to meet some of these children:Also see:
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