03 October 2016
When Trump blatantly laid out his plan for building a physical wall between Mexico and the US border, the idea was deemed so ridiculous it naturally reached viral status. Such a ‘concrete’ plan seemed especially foolish coming from someone with a reputation for delusional ideas. But (yes, there’s a but) in reality Trump will not always be around to humorously highlight the question around walls in general, which already happen to be everywhere around us. From political borders, to social classes to even our spiritual sources, whether they are physical and cost millions or invisible and cost us peace of mind, they seem to invite more harm than protection.
If in the shape of an issued visa or barb wire, Syrians have become very familiar with a never-ending treadmill of barriers. During my trip to Lebanon, I came to realize the different shapes walls can take and how often it’s the invisible barriers that create the most solid realities.
Shatila camp, built for the ‘temporary’ circumstances of Palestinian refugees in the late 40’s outdated its status as ‘temporary’ to permanent over the last 6 decades. Its dense cement walls whisper a history of trauma and violence. While in the last two years, Shatila Camp has experienced an influx of thousands of Syrian refugees, swelling its dense population into the 20,000s.
The thing about Shatila is that because residents are not provided basic civil rights, they are socially, physically and economically confined to the ‘Camp’. The other thing about Shatila is that it’s no longer considered a camp despite its name. In fact it resembles more, a hustling and bustling urban settlement with convenience stores, barbers and dentists.
What this means for Syrian families who take refuge here, they are forced to come up with money for rent, and all other expenses while navigating a crowded maze, of stacked cement walls. Because employment is already scarce in the fragile Lebanese economy, and even more so in the isolated Shatila economy, where humanitarian aid is thinning out every day, the economic burden falls on the shoulders of husbands who rely on unstable and unpredictable task jobs in construction etc. As for women, contributing to the family finances is nearly impossible.
Because one income does not reach ends meet in Shatila, where rent is on average $200-$300, some of the responsibility falls onto the children and inevitably hinders their education. If you’ve had the chance to visit Lebanon, you already know child labor is kind of like a societal elephant in the room, but a really really big elephant.
This being said, women in Shatila have A LOT to offer. Although they came to Lebanon empty handed, these very hands carry years of experience and talents in needlework taught by their mothers and grandmothers in Syria and Palestine. But because lack of legal status, resources and networks are replaced with social stigma, any opportunity to utilize these talents very rarely stretch out of the confinements of Shatila Camp.
This being said, it’s important to note, In Shatila, there is no border control. It's essentially a city within a city left to it's own devices. It is this mutual understanding with the rest of Beirut that draw the thickest lines.
In the early days of my trip however, before I knew this much about Shatila, I happened to come across some open doors…
But that’s for another blog post.
27 June 2016
In mid-August I finally landed in Beirut sometime after midnight and swiftly took a cab to meet my roommate Genny at her hotel. In the heavy darkness of the hour, the hotel seemed like it was located in an obscure part of Beirut. But sooner or later, in the light of day, this obscure location would instead reveal itself as the very familiar Bliss Street, lining the North of the city. As the first days in Lebanon quickly matured into the first weeks, I would sooner than later become acquainted with the pristine sight of American University of Beirut, coffee shop dwellers and medical students congregating in front of Shawarma vendors for a cigarette. I would also become accustomed to the site of barefooted children gathering around the main intersection, stopping sympathetic strangers, like myself, in their tracks.
At first, I couldn’t ignore the touch of their little but stubborn hands pulling at my shirt and the sight of their open palms and big round eyes. I would often walk from my apartment in Hamra to Bliss Street to satisfy a Shwarma craving. I would order a sandwich and ‘sucker’ myself into adding a few more, avoiding the unimpressed looks from the vendor, who is well aware to who they are for, “you shouldn’t do that, you know” they would say.
Regardless, I was delighted to share my pocket money to ease the hunger of these innocent children. All in all, isn’t it adults who should protect the young?
Then the weeks would mature into months, and as I cozied up to a coffee shop patio on the iconic Hamra street, a beautiful little girl with big round eyes would ask me for a little change to buy food. My belly was full, so I handed her the last of my Lebanese liras, but this time not quite in delight but more shamefully, in the relief for her to go away. Then from what seemed out of thin air, a couple little boys who witnessed the scene, ran over with their hands out, mindlessly begging, almost zombie-like.
“I have no more” I pleaded with them. I shrugged. I shook my head. I kept my eyes laser tight onto my magazine. No matter what I did, their palms remained perpetually open as if they were stuck that way while their words remained frozen in repetition “please, please, please”.
Over the months, the more my bank account emptied the more my skin hardened. Soon there was only enough change in my pocket for one shawarma. Earphones in place, avoiding my surroundings instead of observing them, I became as hard shelled as the daily inhabitants of this urban landscape. But in the heat of a Lebanese sun, this hard shell would sooner or later have to melt away…
It’s been about two months since I’ve returned from my 7 month trip to Lebanon. And as I sit in a good’ol Canadian coffee shop reflecting on what happened over the trip, my fingers feel heavy as I attempt to type out yet another overdue blog post. However, they’re not moving slowly due to the lack of material to share with you, instead they’re heavy from the weight in attempt to control the floodgate of emotions, memories and lessons that need to be squeezed into a bite sized blog post.
I’ve been traveling by-annually for a couple weeks each time between Canada and the Middle East for the last 3 years to carry out Tight-Knit Syria’s work but also to volunteer with my cousin’s peace camp for Syrian children- ProjectAmalouSalam. This time, I went in August and didn’t look back until April.
I knew being in the region would help propel Tight-Knit Syria forward and improve my Arabic. What I could have never anticipated is how Beirut’s concrete jungle would swallow me whole and invite me to stay in its belly before flying back to Canadian soil.
My original intent was to share with you blog posts about my daily adventures but as more and more TKS developments would unfold, the more Beirut would absorb my time, eventually reaching a point of running around this jungle from sunrise to sunset. The more the sun would disappear behind the Mediterranean Sea, the more a simple blog post (and Arabic homework) seemed impossible to start, nevertheless complete. Then I realized, Beirut is time for doing, experiencing, and interacting, while Toronto is a time for reflecting…and practicing Arabic grammar. So stay tuned. Because there is a lot of catching up to do.
06 March 2016
Our IndieGogo campaign for "Yarn & Hope for Syrian Refugees: Project Shatila" has raised $6,626USD!!
Our goal was $5,000 and with your help we have surpassed it!!
(We have also added a Donate Button so feel free to contribute what you can. Thank you!!)
Here's a little more on our campaign:
The Story of Malak
Malak is a thirty-nine-year-old mother of six who lives in Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. The family hails from Aleppo in north-eastern Syria, but they have not seen their hometown since they fled ISIS a year and a half ago. Malak misses her home, her garden, her friends and neighbours, but more importantly she misses living an ordinary life. She often reminisces about evenings spent knitting with her mother or friends, she tells me from her living room in Shatila refugee camp, where I have been visiting her once a week since arriving in Beirut last fall. Over time we have formed a friendship that has helped her open up to me about the hardships of life in Shatila. But also about her ideas on how to help her and other refugee women like her.
Why We Need Your Help
There are 1,069,111 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, most of whom no longer have access to stable employment. Only very few professions are open to them. Opportunities to become self-sufficient are scarce, especially for women. Basic necessities like milk powder, says Malak, have become unaffordable. They receive too little assistance from the UN and NGOs, who often lack funding. Although Malak and the women around her might be living under difficult circumstances, they are skilled, creative, and determined to escape victimhood. They want to become self-sufficient, productive members of their community again.
How You Can Help
Some of the traditional skills the women have brought with them are advanced techniques in knitting, sewing and embroidering, which are widespread in Syria and have regional patterns and colours. By knitting and selling a wide range of items, from scarves and blankets to shopping bags and wallets, these dynamic women can provide a significant contribution to rent, water, and food for their families.
With the money raised, we can purchase yarn for the women to knit with, and the rest of the budget will go towards paying them a fair wage for their work.
Once this project has started, the money raised by selling completed items can be reinvested to buy new yarn, secure a living and become self-sustaining.
Helping provide families with a livelihood in the region allows them to escape the desperation that drives many to undertake extremely dangerous, grueling journeys to Europe. We hope you will help to give them the means and the confidence to rebuild their lives and those of their children.
Like all refugees, Malak’s dearest wish is a simple one: to return home to Syria. Until this day arrives, your support can help them weave a brighter future for themselves and their families.
About the Organization
Tight-Knit Syria is a grassroots organization founded in 2013 by Dana Kandalaft after a visit to the Olive Tree Camp in Northern Syria. Several girls revealed their love of knitting and expressed their concern at not just the lack of food and water, but the lack of yarn. Since that day it has become increasingly clear what a positive impact something as simple as yarn can have on Syrian women trying to stay resilient and productive in dire times.
24 August 2015
...to the cutting of the red tape for Tight-Knit Syria's first (and overdue) blog post! We're excited to have your eyeballs here with us today.
So let me start off with a brief introduction to the shadowy figures behind the project you have grown to love so much over the last two years or so :)
Let's start with TKS co-director Genevieve (aka bestie) who joined the team a few months after my trip to Atmeh Syria in March 2013, and who has ever since been contributing her passion for peace building, international business and much needed brain cells. In November 2013, Gen and I went on a mission to a small remote town on the southern border of Turkey and Syria and literally MISSIONED back (plz pay special attention to the caps) with 50 pounds worth of heavy wool knit products on our backs which would soon make up the first TKS winter collection.
Here are pictures of some of the brief moments in Reyhanli where we weren't sweating under the weight of wool products, having a panic attack or freaking out on each other:
Ya, you were never supposed to see these (Via the only hotel in Reyhanli):
AND WE'RE BACK to being professional (Solstice Winter Collection 2013):
It feels strange to finally have the opportunity to sit down and truly reminisce on where we came from, where we are and all the people who adopted our little project and helped raise it into something beautiful.
It is also truly a tricky thing to write a blog post more than two years after visiting the Olive Tree Camp in Atmeh Syria with my brilliant cousin Nousha (founder of Project Amal ou Salam), where we both had a transformative experience. This experience was then followed by many many more adventures, much like the one mentioned above.
The tricky part is not that these moments have faded in time, but instead remain solidified in my memory. I still remember as far back in the very beginning of the events in Syria, the confusion, depression and disconnect I felt as a Syrian born and raised in Canada, with family who still to this date live in Syria. I remember having not a sliver of hope for the country and not a spark of inspiration in how I could help ease the destruction of such historical scale. It was easier to just go to the mall.
That was until I was forced in the most beautiful way to frankly…get over myself.
I know not everyone has the opportunity to visit the Syrian people first hand and witness the stories of resilience, genius creativity and lust for life despite the darkness that follows them.
That’s why TKS was born. It was to bring to North America what I had the opportunity to witness first hand in Northern Syria, when that little girl shared with us a purple knitted dress of a masterpiece, and who went on to enthusiastically explain they needed more yarn!
If you haven't yet, please check this link to learn more about the experience that started it all.
All smiles and Rainbow Hijabs (Olive Tree Camp, March 2013)
As I sit with an empty cup of cappuccino, with my very first plate of Hindbeh(?) with instrumental Arabic music playing in the background, I realize I forgot to mention at the beginning of this post, that's me Dana on the left, and the one with the pearly whites on the right of the picture is Gen. Who btw PROMISED to come visit me in Beirut sometime over the next 6 months.
Wait. Beirut wha?
Well, that’s another blog post…
In warm and fuzzy solidarity