Social entrepreneur and human rights activist, Liyah Babayan is a force to be reckoned with. To escape religious persecution, her family moved from Azerbaijan to Twin Falls, Idaho 25 years ago, a place she still calls home today. It was there that Babayan was recently honored as an Idaho Hometown Medalist for her work promoting the quality integration and resettlement of refugees through her stints in entrepreneurship as well legislative and advocacy efforts. She’s particularly focused on bringing awareness of PTSD and treatment resources to refugees and victims of war.
In 2007 Babayan launched Ooh La La! a unique consignment shop that minimizes waste and harm from mass-manufactured fashion pieces and encourages eco-sensitive fashion habits such as upcycling. She also launched Makepeace, a skincare bath line made entirely from organic Idaho potatoes, with a unique giving back strategy. Most recently, Babayan published Liminal: a refugee memoir – the book documents her struggles and learnings as a refugee to the U.S.
With today’s increased awareness around refugees and the struggle many endure today, we at SEE Change were delighted to speak with Babayan for this one-on-one interview, where she shares her story and how her struggle as a refugee has impacted her efforts today.
Tell us about your childhood, where you grew up, when you came to the U.S. and the early days acclimating to your new country
I grew up in Baku Azerbaijan, capital city on the Caspian Sea during the Soviet Union. Then the Berlin Wall came down and our lives changed. During the collapse of the Soviet Empire, extreme nationalism and Independence movements spread throughout the region – and ethnic killings began to take place. As an Armenian, the Christian minority in Azerbaijan, staying in Baku was a death sentence. After the ethnic killings and pogroms against the Armenians began in Azerbaijan, my family fled to the nearby country of Armenia and lived homeless there for four years.
We were granted refugee status to come to the United States in September 1992. We resettled in Twin Falls, Idaho, a rural, conservative small town. The local college of southern Idaho was our resettlement program host. I turned 10 years old when we arrived in America.
How have your struggles influenced your life and the choices you made?
The struggles of surviving ethnic killings, homelessness and coming to America as a refugee had a scarring effect on my family’s life, security and legacy. It was extremely difficult to survive living homeless and without resources. Hunger and freezing to death was our only option if we didn’t relocate to the United States. Unlike immigrants who have a choice to uproot and move to another country, seeking to improve their life, refugees do not have the convenience of choice. They are forced to flee their home to stay alive, escape the dangers of genocide, war and violence.
Living this life has expanded my compassion for humanity and appreciation for life in my heart. I see the victory in our struggle, as survivors we have a duty to be voices for those suffering and struggling currently to stay alive. I live my life from a position of servitude, lending my voice, entrepreneurship, leadership and actions in service of others. Sometimes it’s with a fundraiser, other times it is in the form of advocacy.
My book Liminal: a refugee memoir brings to light the struggles of integrating into a new society and my personal story as a refugee child and teen and the impact of post-traumatic mental illness and living with Chronic PTSD. My goal is to bring awareness and attention to the treatment of children of war and refugees traumatized by the violence they experienced, as well as the compound trauma from loss of identity and of resettling to a new country. I use my platforms to host this conversation, and connect to creative, compassionate response solutions.
How did you get into entrepreneurship? Tell us about your businesses
I got into entrepreneurship because I admire the individualism and spirit of creativity. My vision was to create a brand that gave back to women and build community up. To get into business for me was out of desperation to expand my opportunity in U.S. and provide my family with financial freedom. Having no roots or legacy in the United States, I felt it was crucial to establish both and at the same time provide for my family. I did not want to compromise my values, identity or creativity and felt that going into business would be a great way to build a platform where I could fuse the things that I was passionate about with what I enjoyed doing most.
The problem was I had zero capital to start up with. Flying back to America from Amsterdam, I drafted a business plan on a cocktail napkin – to open a business with zero-to-little capital, that was centered in sustainability and shared an ethos of humanitarian impact. My mind settled on women, and the fashion sphere of re-purposing, consigning and re-wearing fashion – and the human-made jewelry, art, ethical brands. This was 12 years ago – when ethical or sustainable brands were the thorn in the side of traditional industry, but it aligned with my values and I did not want to compromise.
Today Ooh La La Boutique – known as “Idaho’s Most Adorable and Affordable Boutique” – fully operates on consignment and hand-made contributions. I am most proud of my community work as a social entrepreneur, and the power of partnerships we have developed through Ooh La La! Using my entrepreneurial platform to work with refugees and underprivileged children is the most rewarding experience of my career. To speak and raise awareness about struggles refugee families and children and assist in creating avenues of solutions in our community is important to me.
I feel a sense of duty to give back in experience and action for the betterment of one’s community. In my case, my adoptive community. Creating opportunities for empowerment for women and girls, through advocacy, events and fundraising is what drives our vision and mission of doing good in our community. At the same time, it feels good knowing we are saving the world one recycled garments at a time – and minimizing waste.
Why are these efforts so important to you?
Its important to me to give back because it is how I express my gratitude, through action. I have been blessed with coming to this country, with surviving genocide and feel it is my duty to use my life in service of humanity. That is why I created my second company Makepeace – a full skincare line made entirely out of Idaho potatoes. Hygiene and physical dignity is a basic human right, but for many displaced people soap is a luxury. For every product sold, Makepeace donates a bar of soap to an adult or child refugee living in a camp as well as to homeless veterans in the U.S. Both Ooh La La! Boutique and Makepeace have given me platforms to express my gratitude and compassion for life.
What do you wish people understood about the contributions of refugees to their adopted homeland?
There is a big difference between immigrants who can choose to leave their home country, and migrate to another country with the desire to improve their life and opportunity. Refugees, asylum seekers do not have this same convenience of ‘choice’. They actually flee their home country to escape an immediate threat to their life. Refugees have an unmatched spirit of grit and endurance. Because we survived everything we can survive anything.
There is a lot that people can learn from refugees. First, how to rebuild your entire life out of the crumbs of the American Dream, Second, how to stay hungry for opportunity and Three, how to be unconditionally grateful for another chance at life. After surviving war, genocide and violence, every additional day feels extra. Every day is extra. Every breath is extra. What you do with each day you are blessed with is the difference between an ordinary human spirit and an entrepreneurial one!
Liyah Babayan’s recently published book, “Liminal a refugee memoir” is available to purchase on Amazon.