Liyah Babayan, Ooh La La!
Profile of a Person - Southern Idaho Living Magazine
Liyah, her mother, father, and grandmother left Soviet Baku, Azerbajian escaping religious persecution to live in Armenia, as violence engulfed the area. Four years of homelessness, they lived secretly in an Armenian school utility closet, as they had nowhere else to go; until they were given asylum in America. In 1992, through the refugee program at College of Southern Idaho (CSI), the family took residence in Twin Falls.
Once in the United States, the Babayan family was all on their own; they were each other’s support. At the time, there was no refugee mentor group, no refugee advocates, and no refugee assistance toward successful integration into a new community; Liyah portrays, “It was like we were just dropped out of the sky into a whole new world.” They were without knowledge of the laws, language, or institutions which shaped their new society; nor was there any knowledge of their own civil rights under the constitution. Liyah clarifies, “It was like a clear, undefined separation, there was our world and their world; we did not mix and we knew we were not welcome to participate in theirs.” Liyah remembers walking everywhere with her mom and dad, as they did not yet own a vehicle. She describes, “We were like zombies roaming the streets. No one walks in Twin Falls, the people would just stare at us, like we were creatures from another planet.” Another barrier which stood between them was poverty; the Babayan’s were the poorest of the poor, only owning their memories and past experiences. Liyah says, “Even the poorest American’s seemed rich compared to us. At least they had family pictures, knew the language, understood the culture, and felt as they belonged, we did not even have that.” This isolation and division made Liyah feel unwelcome; however, she whispered, “at least no one was trying to kill us anymore.”
After settling in Twin Falls, the Babayan family found themselves accepting any employment position fit for non-English speaking workers. At times, Liyah’s mother and father were working two full-time jobs each, in order to rebuild their lives. Liyah explains, “When you are a refugee you have to basically live and work for three lives: rebuilding your past basic assets, paying present bills, and saving for a future all at the same time.” This threefold achievement is not an impossible task, but it is slave labor for cheap. Liyah exclaims, “Many refugees proudly build their own American Dream, with the crumbs thrown at them.” Liyah was only 11 years old at the time, she first spent her days at Harrison Elementary School, learning English and gaining knowledge of her new world. A year later, she began assisting her family by working a variety of jobs at an orchard, a retail shop, as well as a florist. Later, she graduated from Twin Falls High School and headed to Ashland, Oregon where she studied at Southern Oregon University. After completing her degree, Liyah returned to Twin Falls with an American dream of her own. Empowered with the passion for fashion, courage to do whatever it takes, and the encouragement of her family, she set out to actualize the vision of a shopping experience that inspires, celebrates, and encourages all women to feel confident, take control of their destinies, and follow their own dreams.
Coming from a fashion background and following the footsteps of her grandmother and mother, who both operated a tailor factory in Baku, Azerbajian designing and sewing garments for male and female clients; dressing and custom creating pieces for others was second nature for Liyah. She shares, “I grew up around my grandmothers sewing machine and passively learned everything from her.” In 2006, Liyah opened the Ooh La La! Boutique, specializing in art, jewelry, fashion, and vintage items. Her vision to open up a consignment shop was motivated by her strong belief in honoring nature, sustainability, and minimizing waste. Coming from the other side of the world, seeing oppression and its harm toward human beings, she says, “I have always found cruel hypocrisy within Western consumerism.” She refuses to be a part of the toxins, sweat shops, and labor trafficking; all to feed this greater demand of fashion, trends, malls, clothes, and accessories. “I saw no honor in traditional retail, in fact it was an immoral industry all together. I wanted to create a space that was an ethical alternative to this, a place where we could encourage conscious consumerism,” she added. Ooh La La! Boutique is a place where women can sell, buy, and exchange fashion while caring for the earth and humanity at the same time. She exclaims, “I couldn't compromise my own values in creating a business, the model had to fit into the boundaries of my ethics.”
A boutique characteristic that is formed within the business model of earth, humanity, and community is Liyah’s willingness to give back to the community that literally saved her and her family’s life. Early March, the boutique’s Facebook page posted the following announcement, Every girl deserves to go to Prom! I remember my parents struggling to rebuild our life in America and could not afford my prom or graduation gown. If anyone knows a family struggling, or a girl not going to prom because she simply cannot afford a dress, send her to Ooh La La! Boutique. We get plenty prom business, we would love to pay it forward. Her business model is more than just a mission statement, it is her core belief to bless forward. Liyah shares, “God has blessed me and my family, the best way to show gratitude is to share the blessing with other people, my adopted community.” The blessing is multiplied, by empowering, educating, or even sharing donations, school supplies, and clothes. “It is all stuff; but, stuff creates momentum in people’s lives,” Liyah adds. The idea is that if we can influence a betterment on any micro level, then the community benefits as a whole; she exclaims, “Making little ripples, turn into giant waves.” The boutique’s undertaking comes deep from within Liyah’s heart, giving as much as possible, because the universe has always taken care her family even when they had nothing to offer. Her motivation to reach higher success goals is driven by the idea, “the better I do, the more I can do for others,” she says.
Ooh La La! Boutique is celebrating its tenth birthday this year; for ten years it has been helping humanity within the Magic Valley. Liyah is opening her second company in early April, MAKEPEACE; which will also be a brand and platform for helping humanity, but it’s outreach is worldwide. MAKEPEACE will focus on empowering people living in refugee camps, as well as, veterans of war. Both suffer during times of war, and are both deserving of our care and empathy. Liyah adds, “Refugees are veterans of war, as civilians, even though they do not wear a uniform - they are the main victims, innocent and unarmed.” Liyah and her family experienced this suffering and continues to battle with its effects; she says, “After surviving the violence in Azerbajian and witnessing the murders our loved ones, we suffer by living with nightmares, triggers, and flashbacks.” MAKEPEACE are products developed: bath line, lotions, blankets, and clothes which are created with improving the human condition in mind. For every product purchased, the business will donate the same product overseas to a cause of choice. Liyah laughs, “The best part is that the entire bath line is made of potatoes, right here in Idaho!” She is very adamant about keeping things as local as possible and definitely will not outsource.
After all the stories were shared, I became full of many more questions of things I wanted to know about this incredible woman. I concluded, with one last question, “When thinking about Twin Falls, your boutique, and your position as a business woman in the community, is there anything that you would like to share with me?” Her reply almost took my breath away, “I am excited to have this second chance at life, I should be dead. I cannot take anything for granted; every day is extra, every opportunity a gift - to create, share and grow. If it benefits others in the process than it is a blessing.”