Craft fair empowers immigrant women

Photo by Martin Connelly

Zainab Jerrett doesn’t like to talk about herself. She’s the coordinator for the International Food and Craft Fair at the Holiday Inn in St. John’s on March 21st, organized by the Multicultural Women’s Organization of Newfoundland and Labrador (MWONL).

This is a year-round gig for Jerrett. The fair started as just a small expo about 15 years ago but, with new money from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA ) and the provincial government, it has been biannual since 2008. A former MWONL board member, Jerrett was happy to accept the coordinator position in 2008.

“It’s really a celebration of cultural diversity,” she says, “but it does a lot to promote business growth and empower women, especially immigrant women.”

Jerrett left a full time teaching position in Nigeria when she came to Newfoundland in 1992 as a PhD candidate in the Memorial Folklore department.

“I fell in love with the place, and the people,” she says. She opened her own business in 2004, the African Market Square in the the Torbay Road Mall, and has been helping other immigrants lay down roots ever since. “A lot of women were actively involved with trading in their home country,” she says, “So we offer classes in how to start and operate a business in Canada, especially with the regulations. We do our best to ensure newcomers don’t leave.” She insists that the fair is the result of many people’s collaboration, but also admits that she started lining up vendors back in November, a week after the last fair.

Jerrett can reel off businesses that started as fair vendors – the Afghan Restaurant and International Flavours are two good examples—which is a good indication that the business skills MWONL are trying to enhance often find their feet at the fair.

“This is all true,” says Jerrett, “But the fair is also about sharing culture, both from away and from here in Newfoundland. There will be food, and music, and a fashion show. There will be craftswomen from all over, but also from this province. We are passionate about promoting diversity.”