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 thirty-one years old and 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 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 lives in Shatila camp with her husband and two little boys, aged three and one, both of whom were born in Shatila camp. Safaa, now twenty-eight, 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.
Fatme is a forty-year-old mother of five children, whose ages range between 24 and 10. She was only sixteen 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 into the conflict, she seized the opportunity to leave her abusive husband behind and come to Lebanon with all five of 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 the care for her younger children without a partner to confer with. 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. 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.
When Mayada fled Aleppo six years ago together with her husband, she had not known him for very long; they were only twenty-one 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 finding work of her own with TKS, saying that 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.
Forty-five-year-old Bushra is one of the most experienced needleworkers in the TKS 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, and Bushra turned out to be a natural who found a creative outlet in crocheting all 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 their five children. Her needlework helps Bushra to deal with stress and anxiety, and she always embroiders before bedtime to help her sleep. She also enjoys the support and strength she derives from working together with a larger 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.
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, TKS field manager Malak, suggested that she learn needlework to help support her household, Farida decided to take the opportunity; because her husband can only occasionally find work in construction, they often struggle 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 TKS projects.