Tight-Knit Syria works with two collectives of twenty-five Syrian women artisans each, one in Olive Tree Camp, Syria, and one in Shatila Camp, Lebanon. Many Syrian women possess traditional skills in embroidering, knitting and crocheting, and working together with TKS they can turn their creativity into a livelihood.
TKS artisans set their own prices to ensure that they receive fair compensation for their labour. Because they can also choose their own hours and work from home, TKS’s approach is particularly well-suited to the realities of life of our artisans, most of whom are mothers to young children and have to combine work with other responsibilities. In this way, 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.
Each of the women who make our beautifully hand-crafted items has her own unique story, personality and hopes for the future. We would like to introduce you to a number of them.
Johayna hails from the Syrian city of Daraa. For the past five years she has lived in Shatila camp with her husband and their five children, who are between the ages of 4 and 16. Johayna was a homemaker in Syria, but since leaving Daraa she has been actively improving her skills in embroidery, crocheting and sewing to help out with living expenses. Despite the poverty and difficult living conditions, Johayna says that she has gained more confidence in herself and her abilities in Shatila, and now does things that she would never have imagined she could do when she lived in Syria. She is happy that her husband is very supportive of her work and increasing empowerment, knowing that some husbands find it difficult to adjust to the changes that come with life in exile.
Manal is 31 years old and lives in Shatila with her husband and three children (soon to be four, as she is currently pregnant with a baby boy). Manal and her family came to Shatila almost four years ago after fleeing the conflict in her home town of Idlib, which claimed the life of one of her brothers. Manal loves to work and be productive; it distracts her from anxious and negative thoughts, and most of all the extra income ensures that her family doesn’t have to resort to child labour to get by. Both Manal and her husband are adamant that their children should stay in school and receive a formal education, which they say is a gift that will benefit the children forever. Because her husband’s income is meagre and inconsistent, Manal only feels at peace when she works as much as she can. Whenever they do have a free day, however, Manal and her husband like to go on a date with just the two of them, and take a walk along Beirut’s shore.
Safaa is the twenty-eight-year-old mother of two little boys, aged three and one, both of whom were born in Shatila camp. Safaa 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, TKS’s field manager, which has helped her to pay the rent, meet new people, and gives her a reason to leave the house and get through the day. Nevertheless, she hopes to complete her law degree one day and become a lawyer as planned, coming from a family of educated professionals (and the bar being set high by her brothers, one being a doctor and the other an engineer). She speaks to her parents on the telephone as often as possible, when the electricity supply in Aleppo allows it.
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. 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 was scattered across Lebanon, Turkey and Saudi Arabia because of the conflict, and she derives much comfort from being able to talk to them.
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 garden, in which Samira started planting an olive grove when her son was a baby which had grown to almost a hundred trees by the time they left, and which she loved caring for 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 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 re-build an existence there. Despite everything, she finds embroidering relaxing, and it reminds her of her mother, who used to embroider cushions and even entire blankets when Samira was small.
Thirty-nine-year-old Aabir was born and raised in Idlib, a city she remembers fondly. Her parents owned a restaurant, where their extensive family would often gather for family meals. As a result, Aabir loves to cook, especially baking traditional Arabic sweets (a passion she shared with her father, who taught her). Aabir learned embroidery in school at the age of fourteen, and went from decorating all the pillowcases at home to becoming a professional needleworker as an adult. When she, her husband and their six children fled Syria five years ago she was therefore on the look-out for work to support her family, and is now one of the most advanced embroiderers in the TKS collective. Apart from the economic benefits, she finds that embroidery provides her with some much-needed time to herself to think. She misses the warmth and company of her family in Idlib, the security she enjoyed there, and – especially as someone who loves cooking – the fresh and healthy food that was available.