Sewing for freedom
Hands. Hands that measure, cut and create. Hands that are sewing their own freedom.
This photo sums up the very soul of a very special project called “Darfat”, which means ‘opportunity’ in Kurdish, that was launched in Iraq in 2019.
The image shows the hands of women working together. Their shared dream is to restore their strength and share their stories, to help each other ease the pain of their experiences.
The photo was taken at a sewing laboratory that we set up in the Barika Syrian refugee camp in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan. This initiative, made of sewing machines, needles, cotton, tape measures and colour, helped the participants realize their dreams of independence and escape their violent pasts.
The goal of “Darfat” was to train and facilitate employment of women who have twice beaten the toughest odds: first, the war which forced them to seek refuge from their stricken homelands; and secondly, the violence they often faced in their own homes.
The idea for a laboratory stemmed from the need to help these women. And from the fact that it is easier for women who are financially independent to escape domestic violence.
All the women who joined the workshop had lived through extremely difficult times and complex family situations; caring for their children, sick relations and elderly parents. While also trying to protect themselves from violent husbands.
With the shared goal of liberation in the future – given that gender-based violence affects all women, everywhere – we rolled up our sleeves and built this project together, which now, 2 years later, is completely self-sufficient.
We began in 2019 by equipping a workspace and organizing professional training courses: with the help of a local seamstress we provided 200 hours of training and a course in retail techniques. Products were sold online to the Iraqi market and also through our network in Italy: the ‘Darfat’ bags arrived in Rome last Christmas and were sold to raise funds for the women who had made them.
This is now our second Christmas together.
And the “Darfat” project has now reached an even greater goal. The direct sale of products has helped the women gain even greater financial independence, and now they handle all aspects of their work, without our help.
Amongst the hands in the photo are those of Farah, Aysha and Suhaila.
Farah, 39 years old, fled Raqqa when the city was still the Syrian stronghold of the so-called Islamic State. She lived in the Barika camp for 8 years before settling in Sulaymaniyah with her 5 children. “I have been a seamstress for 15 years. When I heard they were opening a sewing workshop in the camp I decided to join. What has changed for me? My husband now sees me in a different light now. My work forces him to consider me an active member of society. This is the first time I have worked outside home,” she says. She was also a victim of domestic violence. “This project has made me financially independent and given me the chance to contribute to family finances and work outside the house, in contact with other people.”
Farah is sure that this kind of initiative is absolutely vital “to give women the opportunity to show society what they are capable of and stand up proudly to our opressors, so that together, we can shout “no”.”
Aysha is 35 years old and is from Derek in northeast Syria. She fled her hometown in 2016 and sought refuge in the Barika camp. “I heard they were opening a sewing workshop and thought it was perfect for me. The war left my husband severely disabled, I already had some experience of sewing and this seemed like a good way to help him. This project changed my life, especially my daily routine in the camp. Spending all day at home with your children in the camp is really tough. The workshop provided more than just a chance to meet up for sewing, it also provided a safe space where we formed strong friendships, we were like a family. We supported each other, talked through our problems and worked as a team.”
Their work is coordinated by Suhaila, a member of the local Un Ponte Per staff. She is 30 years old and is herself a refugee. Originally from Iran, she has been living in Iraqi Kurdistan since she was 16 years old. “I have seen these women express joy and happiness through their smiles. Many of them had nothing to smile about for such a long time. Through their sewing, they could ensure financial security for themselves and their children, of course. But they also helped each other deal with their suffering and feelings of loneliness. I watched them helping each other every day, healing each other’s wounds. I saw how their families began to see them differently and treat them with greater respect and less violence. Now they know they have an important role in their community, and have a place in society. And I am confident they will be able to be able to build their own future, in freedom.”
* This project was funded by the Italian Agency for Development and Cooperation (AICS), by the Automous Province of Bolzano and Fons Català de Cooperació al Desenvolupament. The photo is by Florent Vergnes, all rights reserved.