There are many women in my family that I admire, among them my great grandmother who was the campaign manager for her politician husband, my grandmother who immigrated to the US and managed the family finances, my mother who pursued her MBA and took care of three children simultaneously.
But of all these women my favourite story is that of my father’s first cousin Marlen Zarruk the founder of a business empire that now spans 5 countries and employs almost 1000 people.
Marlen was born and raised in Bethlehem. She was a bright and hardworking student who, after finishing school, was awarded a scholarship to study at a British University. Ambitious and adventurous she had made up her mind to travel and continue her education. But she told me “It wasn’t meant to be. My father would not allow me to travel abroad alone and I abided by his wishes”.
In 1960 Marlen was 19. Unlike today there was no Wall or check points between Bethlehem and East Jerusalem where she was continuing her studies. In the Autumn of that year while Marlen was attending a church service in Bethlehem she noticed an unfamiliar man speaking to her 15 year old brother. She couldn’t make out what they were saying to each other. “Only later I discovered that he had been asking my bother about me and if he knew who I was. My bother understood that this man was looking for a bride and he wasn’t keen on losing his sister, so he replied that he did not know me but if he was looking for a bride he would be happy to recommend eligible young ladies,” says Marlen.
The unfamiliar man was able to find someone who knew Marlen and her family. He had come to ask for Marlen’s hand in marriage. His name was Ramone Sabagh, he lived in Chile and he was only visiting Bethlehem. “Over the next few days he came to my parent’s home and we talked and got to know each other. I could tell he was a good person and I was eager to travel and learn about knew places which made me reach my decision quickly. Three weeks after I first met Ramone we were married”.
Although Marlen’s mother had Jordanian citizenship (Bethlehem and the whole of the West Bank was still controlled by Jordan in 1960) as a woman she could not pass her nationality to her children. Sadly, this is still the case in almost every Arab country. Marlen’s father had been born to Palestinian immigrant parents in Nicaragua but as there was no Nicaraguan Embassy in Jordan he could not pass on Nicaraguan citizenship to his children. The result was that Marlen and her siblings were stateless and held no travel documents. Marlen was only able to travel with her husband to Chile after the Jordanian government issued her a ‘Laissez Passer’ which is a travel document issued for one-way use. That meant she was unable to travel again before she became a Chilean citizen which took 12 years.
Marlen remembers looking out of the window of the airplane as it landed and immediately falling in love with the country. The next morning, she accompanied her husband to his dress shop in Santiago where she started work. She was the bookkeeper and she kept up with about a hundred clients who had credit at the store. Marlen remembers “I was happy to work in the store. What would I have done otherwise? I would have probably stayed home and felt home sick. I already knew English and French as well as my native Arabic and within a month I had picked up Spanish thanks to being at the shop and dealing with the clients. I even began teaching Spanish to English and French diplomats to earn some extra money”.
About 5 years after arriving in Chile a customer walked in the store and saw Marlen embroidering bed sheets. The customer asked Marlen how much the bed sheets cost but Marlen informed her that they were not for sale and that she had been making them for her own home. Even after this the customer didn’t give up, so Marlen named her price and the customer paid up immediately. Marlen’s Husband had not been in the store and when he returned she narrated to him what had happened. He was astonished at how much the customer had been willing to pay for the embroidered bed sheets.
“There and then I decided we were going to go into a new business. The profits at the dress shop were mediocre and the business wasn’t growing. To tell you the truth I also felt a little jealous when my husband needed to measure up women for their dresses. I started designing and making bedding. There was a lot of demand and business started to take off”.
In 1972 Marlen finally became a Chilean citizen and was able to travel. As well as visiting Bethlehem she made a trip to the USA where she had both a paternal and a maternal uncle. Although on a trip to visit family Marlen didn’t forget about business. She asked about bedding manufacturers and so they took her to a factory where Cannon made bedding. It was the largest factory she had ever seen employing 20,000 workers. She took the opportunity to tour the factory and speak to the manager. ‘Knowing English was very useful otherwise how would I have been able to speak to people at this factory’. She bought 6 bedding sets, but she thought to herself one day I hope to able to buy the Cannon franchise for Chile.
When she returned to Chile she decided to give her bedding business a new name ‘Valencia’ and she decided to use similar techniques in making bedding which were new to Chile.
Her next trip to the Cannon bedding factory was to be in 1980 on this trip she bought two containers filled with Cannon products. When she returned to Chile her husband was a little worried. She remembers him saying “How are we ever going to sell all this merchandise?”
Marlen was confident, she knew what customers wanted in Chile. Within one month everything had been sold and at a handsome profit.
Next in 1990 Marlen was able to realise her dream. After many years of negotiations, she was finally able to buy the Cannon Franchise for Chile. She travelled to the US with her two sons Victor and Eduardo to finalize the deal. At the same time, they bought 2000m2 plot in Santiago where they built a shop and factory.
Today the company that Marlen established ‘Valencia’, owns the Cannon Franchise for Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Chile. It is run by her three children, Victor, Eduardo and Patricia who are civil engineers. Marlen only visits the factory and shops once a week.
She is the President of the Arab women’s club of Chile and Advisor to the President of the Palestinian women’s club. Since her husband passed away in 2003 she visits Palestine annually. She has a great love for the place where she was born and raised. “I wanted to help my people and decided the best way to do this is through education. I started raising money in Chile and in the beginning, it was only possible to sponsor two school children’s education. Others along with myself worked hard and I am happy that at present we sponsor sixty school children”.
I asked Marlen what her message to other woman would be and Marlen said “When my father refused to allow me to travel for my scholarship I could have become bitter and given up, but I didn’t. I want everyone to know we have many chances in life and we should work hard on every single one we get”.