This, as befits a blog about interiors, is a post about a cushion. But it is also a post about what happened in Syria 10 years ago. And about what is happening now. Because this is not just any cushion. It is a cushion made by a woman, one of a group of women, living a tent in a refugee camp in Lebanon. A cushion that arrived here by post, the money for which will allow that woman to help feed her family, clothe her children and help herself feel that she is doing something positive in the life that she must now lead through no fault of her own.
On 6 March 2011, 15 children were arrested in Daraa for writing slogans against Assad’s government. In reaction people spilled onto the streets demanding freedom (this came after the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt). Thousands of students protested and were arrested and tanks filled the streets. The country has been at war ever since. To read more look up Waad Al-Kateab, whose award-winning documentary For Sama details life in Syria during the uprising and was created from 500 hours of footage.
A couple of weeks ago I received an email from Sabbara, an organisation set up to train women in traditional embroidery techniques giving them a creative outlet for their trauma, a supportive community and, crucially, an income. Sabbara works primarily in Syria and Lebanon and sells in the UK – the income from four cushions a month can pay for rent, food and schooling.
Sabbara was founded by Syrian sisters-in-law Itab Azzam, who lives in the UK, and Manya Elendary,in Canada. The women make cushions, bags and scarves drawing on traditional Syrian embroidery but giving the colours and patterns a modern twist.
Itab told me: “We have found the women love making them – it’s very meditative and work they can be truly proud of – and it transforms their lives as the income enables them to pay for rent, food and even schooling. We’ve found this also empowers women within the household, making them more confident as they are now the breadwinners.
“We may associate Syria with violence and war, but once it was at the heart of the Great Silk Road, at the centre of the trade route between East and West. The beautiful textile damask is named after the country’s capital Damascus, where it was originally hand woven in silk. Today, Sabbbara is one organisation drawing on this rich history to help those who have lost everything in the conflict.”
There is no question, says Itab that the war has had a devastating effect on women. Training them in traditional handicrafts began as a type of therapy in Beirut but bit by bit the work began to sell.
“I came here after the uprising and we work with women in refugee camps in Lebanon -they are the most in need,” she explains adding that once people are here they are often within the system and with access to help.
“We have a network of between 50 and 100 women who we now know very well. We send them the materials and they post the work back. They learn via You Tube and on their phones.”
The women are a real mix – some wanted to be teachers or doctors, some don’t read or write and were married off really young. A lot of them have lost their husbands in the fighting and employment is scarce.
“Lebanon was a really poor country and a quarter of the people have refugee status. There is no work for men and huge discrimination. Women can do this work safely from their homes while looking after their children.”
Itab has been working for Sabbara for free for ten years giving employment to the woman. All the money they make from donations and sales goes back into Sabbara and they are desperate to spread the word. To help more women. At the moment you can only buy via Sabbara but they are also looking for stockists so if any of you reading this have shops or work for shops in PR, marketing or sales and think you can help please get in touch either in the comments below or via the site.
So, like I said, this is a post about a cushion. But it is also a post about what buying one of these cushions can do.
In the words of Nour, who made the cushion above, and who has lived in a dirty and dangerous refugee camp in Lebanon since fleeing Syria seven years ago: “There is nothing more beautiful than a bird. Birds represent freedom. They fly wherever they want, they land on any branch in any country they like. We wish we could fly wherever we want and land somewhere more colourful.
We made this bird as colourful as we could; it is full of life and full of soul. Full of our souls.”
Itab sent me this cushion so I could photograph it in my house and show it off properly. I have donated £100 in return.
In addition to the cushions Sabbara also sells fabulous tote bags, scarves and clutch bags as well as coin purses starting from £18.