Aid & Development

Needles and thread: Syrian refugees stitch their way to a better life in Istanbul


A social enterprise of 50 Syrian mothers displaced by war is ready to achieve financial stability with their online launch of handmade products. The women were able to launch their project in coordination with Small Projects Istanbul (SPI) a grassroots NGO in Istanbul.

In a basement of a community centre nestled in Istanbul’s Fatih district, around two dozen women are busy at work with scissors, thread and needles in hand.

They are racing against time to produce earrings, shirts, scarves, tote bags, and other home items and accessories before the launch of a website that will showcase their latest productions.

The women chat in Arabic and help each other with the ease and confidence of those sharing so much in common. Most of them are Syrian refugees fleeing from their war-torn homelands. Sometimes laughter can be heard during short breaks or in between stolen moments of needlework and embroidery.

“It feels like we are all working for two families, one inside and one outside of our homes. We are able to meet people from other communities and we can learn from each other,” says Lodi, a Syrian designer supporting her parents and two younger siblings with her work. “In coordinating the group, first I have to feel love for every woman and understand her.”

The Fatih district of Turkey’s most populous city is now home for a growing community of Syrian refugees. Filled with shops and restaurants where Arabic scripts and sounds have become the daily norm, today this neighbourhood is the meeting point for many refugees wishing to start their lives over again.

Settled near the historic Walls of Constantinople is the five-story building of Small Projects Istanbul (SPI), a grassroots NGO operating in Istanbul. It is one of the several community centres which act as a point of reference in the area for refugees trying to rebuild their lives from scratch. SPI currently supports over 200 families from MENA conflict zones by providing training that allows participants to learn the necessary skills to earn an income and support their families, as well as opportunities to take on leadership roles.

SPI’s most recent entrepreneurial project focuses on mothers displaced by war, putting all of their efforts into the well-being of families living in exile.

The centre recently launched a new fashion brand with handmade products made mainly by refugee mothers that will be available online later this year.

“Within SPI we have a registered Turkish social enterprise through which we develop the skills, products and social cohesion of over 50 women from Syria, Iraq and Egypt,” explains Shannon Kay, SPI’s co-director.

In 2016, the centre had already launched a product line operating in the same space with the same women: Drop Earrings Not Bombs. To widen their scope and expand the availability of their products and the activities for the women, SPI decided to add a new platform in 2018, dubbing the new product range Muhra.

After their first exhibition abroad in November 2017 at Bazaar Berlin in Germany, showcasing last year’s collection, the positive feedback motivated SPI to create Muhra and a new collection with spring colours and tactile finishes, providing these hard-working women with a second opportunity to share their work and expand their designs beyond just earrings.

The Muhra team is run and mentored by women from various parts of the globe: administration members hail from Turkey, the US and Australia. As foreign expats in Turkey with a shared background in humanitarian work, it was easy for them to find a common goal and come together to launch this fashion social enterprise.

“Muhra means ‘foal’ in Arabic and our motto is ‘together, boundless’. This word in Arabic represents the fresh energy of a new beginning, starting strong and moving with positivity. It represents our roots, as the word ends in the Arabic letter for femininity,” Kay, an Australian national, explains to Middle East Eye.

The women designers are largely Syrian mothers between the ages of 26 and 65. Led by Shayma – who is a Syrian mother of three – the workshop space hosting the 50 female part-time workers is marked by her gentle leadership and positive attitude.

A hard-working member of the Muhra team, Shayma is a self-taught creator of macramé (a 1970s knotting technique with rope or twine) items such as handbags, hanging baskets, bracelets and other creations. Her latest masterpieces include wall hangings, plant hangers, and a beach bag design that is part of Muhra’s summer collection.

The choice of focusing on fashion as a theme for the enterprise was inspired by one of the first scenes witnessed by the administrative team in this workshop’s space.

“A small group of women sat in a circle, making macramé bracelets with and for each other,” remembers Kay.

“We focus on women because of the situation of the mothers in our community here. We started as a community centre where mothers would come and bring their children. The stress of displacement means that these women now need to generate income to contribute to the household or even to support the entire home,” she adds.

‘By women, for women’
Muhra’s model is “by women, for women”. They invite locals into their workshop, which fosters mutual understanding and allows refugees and locals to meet.

Registering as a Turkish social enterprise was a crucial step in enabling Muhra to secure the highest benefits for their workers. In a country where many Syrian refugees are working illegally and where even children have to work so that they can survive – although Turkey bans children under 15 from working – registering SPI as a Turkish social enterprise had its challenges. Around 3.5 million Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey to escape the civil war that broke out in 2011. Approximately half of them are under the age of 18.

Because SPI strives to provide tax registration numbers for all of the women participants – still an ongoing process – in order to be fully entitled by Turkish Law to secure legal work permits and remuneration, Kay says they “face challenges in racist attitudes of individual workers inside the Turkish bureaucratic system”.

“Becoming a social enterprise does not only legitimise our work, it also gives us the ability to secure the women’s right to work,” Kay stresses.

The website will soon allow Muhra to engage with customers from around the world and allow these women entrepreneurs the ability to reach their collective goal of financial stability. Prices of their products range from 70TL-180TL ($15-$40).

Homeland roots
The clothes and accessories are inspired by themes of nature, tradition and storytelling. Most of their designs are in fact replicas of print patterns and natural landscape colours of Turkey and Syria, such as the Loz product line of earrings, made from brass frames, plated with gold or silver and layered with Turkish cotton mercerised thread.

Loz, meaning almond in Arabic, is a reference to the use of this nut in Syrian cooking. Designed with a free hand, the women who produced them were inspired by the blossoming of almond trees in their memories of Syria. They are from a time when the country could still preserve its natural colours now covered by the grey of destruction.

For this reason, they chose the name bedaia jadida – meaning new beginning in Arabic – for this jewellery range. The Zahra range of accessories is also inspired by the women’s collective heritage. From the Arabic name for rose, their handmade tablet cases put together Turkish woven cloth and hand-dyed organic cotton, simple but traditional materials from the region that create durable and original accessories.

“We need to use much energy and time and focus to finish each pair. It’s all by hand, our eyes, our concentration,” says Zeynep, a 35-year-old Syrian refugee woman who has been part of the project since the beginning.

Another member of the group, Rose, says that the most positive thing about the enterprise is that she can support her family with her creativity. “Before, I never imagined I could make something creative with my hands,” she comments.

“We have to communicate a lot with each other to do the work, to make sure we know exactly what the order is and how we can achieve excellent quality. We must love each other in this, to be producing good quality work,” Rose adds.

Image: Small Projects Istanbul

Article: Middle East Eye