From refugee to artisan
Most of the women in the Tight Knit Syria collectives had to leave their belongings behind when they escaped the war in Syria. They brought with them the knowledge of traditional skillsets like embroidery, crocheting, and knitting—passed on from their mothers and grandmothers—which they now use to earn a living with Tight Knit Syria. These are some of their stories.
Safaa lives in Shatila camp with her husband and two little boys, aged three and one, both of whom were born in the camp. Safaa, now 28, was about to start the third year of her law degree at the University of Aleppo when the conflict forced her and her husband – who was a fellow law student – to flee the country. She felt isolated and bored in Shatila until she learned to knit, embroider and crochet from Malak, Tight Knit Syria’s collective co-founder (you can read about her on our team page). It has helped her pay rent, meet new people, and gives her a reason to leave the house and get through the day. She hopes to complete her law degree one day and become a lawyer as planned, especially since she comes from a family of high achievers (her two brothers are a doctor and an engineer). She speaks to her parents on the telephone as often as possible, when the electricity supply in Aleppo allows it.
Bushra, 45, is one of the most experienced needleworkers in the Lebanon collective. As the oldest of eight children in a conservative household in Idlib, she was taken out of school at the age of ten to help out around the house. At this time, her great-aunt started teaching her crocheting and embroidery, which Bushra turned out to be a natural at and eventually made the pillow covers in the house. As an adult, Bushra found work embroidering traditional Arabic clothing for different shops, until the conflict forced her to flee Idlib with her husband and five children. Her needlework helps her deal with stress and anxiety, and she always embroiders before bedtime to help her sleep. She also enjoys the support and strength she gets from working with a large group of women, and finds that – despite the circumstances – she enjoys knowing more about the outside world than she did during her more sheltered life at home.
Samira lived happily in Aleppo with her husband and now 11-year-old son until conflict overwhelmed their city. They were devastated to leave behind their home and especially their olive grove in the garden, which they started planting when her son was a baby and grew to almost a hundred trees by the time they left. She loved caring for it while her son played outside. Not wanting to leave Syria, Samira and her family moved from place to place for several years to stay with various relatives, even in towns that were under militant control. In 2017, Samira had the opportunity to briefly return to Aleppo and was heartbroken to discover that her house had been reduced to rubble and the olive trees were badly neglected. Without a home to return to or means to support themselves, she and her family went into exile in Lebanon and are attempting to rebuild an existence there. Despite everything, she finds embroidering relaxing, and it reminds her of her mother, who used to embroider cushions and blankets when Samira was small.
Manal, 31, lives in Shatila with her husband and four children, the youngest of which was born in January 2019. Manal and her family came to Shatila almost four years ago after fleeing the conflict in her hometown, Idlib, which claimed the life of one of her brothers. Manal loves to work and be productive because it distracts her from anxious and negative thoughts. The extra income also means her children don’t have to work and can stay in school. Since her husband’s income is meagre and inconsistent, she feels more at peace when she works a lot. Whenever the two have a day off, however, Manal and her husband like to go on a date and take a walk along Beirut’s shore.
Fatme, 45, is a mother of five children, whose ages range between 10 and 24. She was only 16 when she married, and the marriage quickly turned physically and verbally abusive. When the civil war broke out and her oldest son decided to flee the country to avoid being drafted, she seized the opportunity to leave her abusive husband behind and come to Lebanon with her children. She no longer has any contact with him. Being a single mother is difficult under the best of circumstances, but it is an additional challenge trying to make ends meet in Shatila camp while bearing the full responsibility of caring for her children. Despite this, Fatme says she feels much stronger than she did in Syria and is no longer afraid. It feels good to earn her own money, and whenever there is a little extra she likes to buy something nice for her family’s home.
Aziza was a normal teenager in Aleppo until the civil war broke out. The conflict first forced her fiancé to flee the country and she joined him exile one year later, bringing her wedding dress with her. They were married in Shatila, where they have lived for the past two years. Aziza loves knitting and crocheting, and has become an advanced embroiderer under Malak’s tutelage (whose bio you can find on our team page). As is the case for many twenty-two-year-olds, Aziza’s cellphone is one of her most cherished possessions; she spends much of her free time looking up new needlework techniques and patterns online, as well as other design ideas and creative ways to tie hijabs. More importantly, her cell phone is her lifeline to her family, which is now scattered across Lebanon, Turkey and Saudi Arabia because of the conflict. She derives much comfort from being able to talk to them.
When Mayada fled Aleppo six years ago with her husband, she had not known him for very long; they were only 21 years old at the time and theirs was an arranged marriage, which came under a lot of pressure from their difficult living conditions. Although her husband – who had been a house painter in Syria – manages to sporadically find similar work in Lebanon, they struggle every month to pay their rent and living expenses, and Mayada was desperately bored without friends or family in the camp. She feels that her marriage has started to improve since she decided to focus on expanding her needlework skills and working with Tight Knit Syria. She says her husband respects her skills and contribution to the household expenses, even going so far as to assume her household tasks when he sees that she has a big order to fulfill. Mayada gave birth in exile to her six-year-old daughter and four-year-old son, and has recently learned that she is expecting a third child.
Farida grew up in a village close to Aleppo, and came to Shatila almost three years ago with her husband and four children. Her eight-year-old and six-year-old attend the local school, and she spends her days in the company of her four-year-old and two-year-old, who always accompany her when she goes to embroider with friends. Farida, now twenty-six, was a homemaker in Syria, and loves taking care of her children and watching them grow. When Farida’s neighbour, Malak (Tight Knit Syria’s Shatila collective co-founder), suggested that she learn needlework to help support her household, Farida decided to take the opportunity. Her husband only occasionally finds work in construction, so they often struggled to cover basic living expenses. She started going to Malak’s house to practice and learn, and quickly became an adept needleworker who has worked on a variety of our projects.
We work with two collectives, consisting of 25 artisans each. One is based in Olive Tree Camp, Syria, and the other in Shatila Camp, Lebanon.
We aim to create an environment of dignity and productivity even in exile, until our artisans can safely return to Syria to rebuild life at home. So the women set their own prices on items to ensure they receive fair compensation for their labour. They also choose their own hours and work from home because most of them are mothers to young children and have to combine work with other responsibilities.
*Since most of our artisans do not like their photograph to be taken for safety or privacy concerns, we have created illustrations of them instead.