In a small ground-floor studio in Homs, Syria, five women sew clothes. They lost everything when so-called Islamic State drove them from their homes. Now they are rebuilding their lives one stitch at a time.
“Islamic State pushed us out of our homes. We had to live in a tunnel under the mountain with 265 other people. We were forced to stay there. On some days there was fighting around the mountain,” said Fatan, who had never sewn before joining the studio.
With the outbreak of the Syrian war, Hala, Fatan, Shiveen, Mahera and Ibtihaj had to flee their homes to escape the violence, leaving behind everything they had worked so hard for. Some of them have lived through unbearable trauma. But these highly skilled and capable women haven’t given up hope – for themselves, their families or their country. “With the help of God, Syria will be all right again,” Fatan said.
Needles and thread are nothing new for Hala, who had a sewing workshop for 25 years. “It stopped operating because of the war,” she said. “I ended up living here in Homs. My house was damaged so I moved in with my sister.” Through the local church in Homs, Open Doors helped Hala set up the sewing studio, which she now manages. She’s passing on her years of experience to Fatan, Shiveen, Mahera and Ibtihaj in sewing, reading patterns and tailoring.
The studio isn’t just giving these women new skills – it’s providing them with the dignity of work and the ability to provide for their families. Together, the five women make clothes and quilts to sell to their community. “Here in Homs I found the opportunity to work again and to train other women in this work,” Hala said. As the business grows, Hala hopes to train up more women to join the studio.
Islamic State may be largely defeated in Syria, but the crisis is not over yet. Many aid agencies are reducing their support; some are pulling out completely. Breadwinners have left Syria’s devastated towns and villages, driven away by the ongoing violence, lack of work and rising food prices. It’s the most vulnerable people who are left behind: those displaced from their homes, the elderly whose children have left Syria, the chronically ill who need medical care and those with young children.
Projects like the sewing studio are vital in helping to create jobs that pay enough to support a family. The cost of basic necessities, such as food and fuel, are ten times higher than they were at the start of the war, meaning that even those who have been able to find work often don’t earn enough to cover the needs of their families. And with the arrival of winter, heating bills are putting an extra strain on already struggling families.
“Because of the stress of the war, my son suddenly developed diabetes,” said Shiveen. “It was from a time that he came home and we were not there. He was convinced we had all been killed. After we fled to Homs, I found some temporary work in a grocery shop. That was not good because I earned too little money. It wasn’t enough to buy what my family needed. I had to pay rent, and the food aid had stopped.” Thanks to the sewing studio, Shiveen has not only learnt a new skill, but she is able to buy medicine for her son and put food on the table. “I am excited about this job,” she said. “We’re making something and getting an income. It is so good that we are producing here, that we can sell the products.”
The seven-year war in Syria has drastically altered life for millions of people: six million Syrians have fled the country, and a further six million are internally displaced. This mass exodus has changed the gender dynamics for those who have stayed.
As so many men have fled, the younger generation no longer see marriage as a likelihood. “Women of marrying age in Syria are the majority,” said one woman in her twenties. “This is very demotivating for girls and young women. I’m afraid I won’t ever marry.”
“It’s almost impossible – there are almost no boys,” said another. “We can say goodbye to marriage and family.”
“Roles are changing within the family,” said one Syrian man. “In Syria, married women with children don’t usually work. Many used to own their own homes, but now, as displaced people, they have to pay rent from the little money they have left. Women now bear a double burden. Their position changed and they now have multiple roles within the family and society. Besides supervising the family and raising children, they now carry the economic burden to provide an income.”
Open Doors is working through local church partners to provide loans for income-generating businesses, ensuring women are able to provide for their families; the sewing studio is just one of many of these projects giving women dignity in the midst of war. “The factory is a wonderful step for our future,” Fatan said. “You didn’t just give us a salary for one month, you’ve invested in something for our entire life.”
In Safita, in north-western Syria, Pastor Musa and his team are giving out microloans to women who have great ideas for businesses. “At first we were afraid that the women would not earn enough to pay back the loan,” he said. “But they actually made enough to make a living for themselves and pay back the loan. That encouraged us to continue with this kind of project. We will support 20 more women over the next two years. After they pay the money back it can be used again for loans for other women.”
Elias, a pastor from Aleppo, said, “Microloans are an important next step. The people need to work again. We must do something to help the people work again to earn their own living. That is a way of giving the people hope.”
ONLY THE BRAVE
Though millions decided to leave Syria, the brave decided to stay. Risking everything, they serve the vulnerable, needy and displaced. They believe in rebuilding their country and serving their communities.
Many of these people are church leaders like Pastor Abdullah, who has a congregation in Aleppo. “We are beginning to rebuild everything,” he said. “Even though the damage is big and huge it is obvious to everyone that there is life, and reconciliation is coming back after the extremists were defeated.
“There were times when there was no one in the streets. Now people have come back to Aleppo, you can see them walking in the street with joy in spite of the difficult situation and difficult economy.
“The challenges are that there are not enough jobs, and the needs of families are not being met in terms of schools and rent for apartments, but the church is playing her part in helping these families.”
Open Doors’ secret networks are bringing hope to Christians persecuted for their faith in over 60 countries. Through people like Pastor Abdullah, and Hala with her sewing studio, Open Doors is supporting the church in Syria with vital aid. The light of the church in Syria must not be extinguished – find out how you can keep hope alive.
This article first appeared in Liberti magazine.