Rebuilding Social bonds through Baking

UNDP’s recipe for reintegration and unity in liberated areas

February 27, 2024

In 2014, running through 2017, the conflict with ISIL led to violence and displacement in Iraq. Forcing many to flee their homes and find refuge elsewhere both inside and outside Iraq. 

Even though the conflict ended and occupied areas were liberated, its negative impact continues to ripple through the affected communities in various parts of the country. Several displaced people who returned home still struggle with the aftershocks of conflict. Many lost their homes, sources of livelihood, good health, and the community bonds that held everything together. Women and children particularly suffered from specific challenges including a lack of opportunities to contribute to their family incomes as they struggled to rebuild. 

As part of efforts to address these challenges, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) working with partners like Human Appeal is providing livelihood and economic support as well as mental health support services to returnees and host community members through vocational training, cash for work activities, and small business grants among others – to improve their lives and build back social bonds. 

One of the key vocational activities provided is baking classes for women. In United Through Food, a UNDP-curated cookbook celebrating Iraqi cuisine – baking is identified as one of the traditional aspects of Iraqi culture. For UNDP’s social cohesion initiatives, baking is a gateway for women – usually delegated homemaking roles only – to contribute to their families’ incomes. Below, we share the stories of three inspiring women from Al Zab in Kirkuk Governorate, whose lives have been transformed by these efforts.

The three women (left–right): Buthaina, Rania, and Suzan show off some of their baked creations during a get-together at the Al Zab Government training centre.

Photo credit: UNDP Iraq 2024

Dreaming of sponge cake - Buthaina Hussein’s story

“I used to dream of making sponge cake, but now I can make it,” exclaimed 30-year-old Buthaina Hussein, a married mother of four. She is one of the 10 women from the Al Zab village in Kirkuk Governorate selected to take part in the vocational classes led by Human Appeal, a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Implementing Partner working in the areas of return. 

During the 14-day training, she expanded her baking skills, learning how to make different types of cakes and Iraqi candies and perfecting her decorating techniques.  By the end of the training, she was taking orders from her neighbours and earning 6000 IQD per cake sold. She hopes to even make more as demand increases. 

Buthaina’s family was displaced in Kirkuk City for 5 years due to the ISIL insurgency and returned to find everything destroyed. “We had to start all over again,” she said, adding that they are rebuilding their family home and she is happy that she can also make a small contribution to that now. 

“Everyone in my family is excited about this, my children all support me while I work and they are learning too,” she said. 

She is also excited about her new friends from the classes, “we have become like sisters and consult each other on recipes and other ideas.”


From homemaker to businesswoman: Rania 

In the same baking class, 32-year-old Rania Kalam is also embracing her new life as a baker. She also proudly describes herself as a businesswoman since she started getting orders right after upgrading her skills. In addition to baking cakes, the training introduced her to dishes like pizza and Iraqi candies, leading to orders for birthday celebrations and engagement parties.

"With my first order, my whole family was outside waiting for the pick-up and took photos of the whole thing, it was such a happy day," Rania shared excitedly adding that her husband now helps her make deliveries. 

“Even if the little profit I make meets only my needs, it's enough because it reduces the expenses for the whole family,” Rania explains adding that savings go to other family needs. Her family fled Al Zab for one and half years returning in 2017 to rebuild.


Suzan gets help 

Suzan shares a smile to show her gratitude for the counselling support received from the project. (Photo credit: UNDP Iraq 2024).

Photo credit: UNDP Iraq 2024

For Suzan Salih, a married mother of six, the baking classes introduced her to the project’s Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Services (MHPSS).

She was struggling with family rejection after she was appointed to become the first female mukhtar in Shmeet, Alzab district. Traditionally, this position is reserved for men and her brothers saw it as a dishonour to their family when she accepted it.

Despite her family's disapproval, she took on the role offered by the Mayor after working at his house. The disapproval from her brothers affected her deeply, hindering her concentration during baking classes.

It was during the baking classes that she learned about the MHPSS. Feeling isolated, Suzan approached a counsellor from the Human Appeal team. Through individual and group sessions, she found valuable mental health support.

"Now, I focus on supporting my family and those who care about me," Suzan shared, grateful for the newfound strength. Although she's yet to start her home-based baking business, she plans to sell pastries to the local school once she secures a grant.

In her role as mukhtar, Suzan aims to unite people, including returnees. Despite initial challenges, she feels there’s more acceptance now, especially from her father and in-laws. She looks forward to a brighter future, empowered by mental health assistance, and determined to make a positive impact in her community.


Building lasting bonds through baking

Despite their varying backgrounds, all ten women – who are evenly divided into returnees and host community members - are now good friends, and frequently exchange tips on baking, building the kind of relationships that promote reintegration and social cohesion within their communities. Their trainer continues to guide them in pricing their products while the Human Appeal staff supports them find new markets to sell their goodies. 

“We are particularly impressed by the drive these women have shown in starting their businesses even before receiving their toolkits,” Hani Zuhair, the Project Manager of Human Appeal said, adding that this was a marketable skill because the culture of having dessert and baked goods at home and events is picking up once again in these rural communities. Through the project, beneficiaries also learn about hygiene, the importance of education in their communities, and other topical issues in their communities. This is intended to raise their awareness and enable them to become ambassadors for change within their communities. 

All ten women received a baking tool kit that included an oven, a food processor, and mixers among other items to enable them to grow their home-based businesses and sustain their livelihoods in the long run. Those who show interest will also be supported with job placement opportunities to enable them to continue building their skills while they earn.

About this initiative 

UNDP is providing this support through its Community-Based Reconciliation and Reintegration in Iraq project. Currently being implemented in Kirkuk, Diyala, and Anbar Governates, the project will benefit 170 beneficiaries, including 82 women.

Through efforts such as these, UNDP reached 3,925 returnees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) with direct livelihood support including vocational training as well as 5,482 returnees, IDPs, and host community members received MHPSS support in 2023 alone. A further 9000 individuals will be supported in 2024. 

As recovery continues and Iraq embarks on its journey toward lasting peace and sustainable development, these efforts - which are made possible with the generous contributions from UNDP’s Funding Window for Peacebuilding - remain crucial for providing the building blocks towards a peaceful and socially cohesive Iraqi society.