From the Nile to the Euphrates

With the global refugee total passing the 20 million threshold for the first time since 1992 in 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has come up with an initiative that aims to preserve the memories of lost homes on the twin rivers of the Nile and the Euphrates, or Furat in Arabic.

The NilFurat Project was developed in response to the needs of women in the Hadayek Al-Maadi district of Cairo in particular, home to many refugee African and Syrian women. The project introduces a multi-cultural handicraft and business model for the economic empowerment of women and provides space for interaction and social support while developing skills in the traditional Egyptian craft of quilting using the appliqué technique of khayameya, or tent-making.

It hopes to create a common space for learning and dialogue between women from the local host community in Egypt and refugee communities. Building on the richness of their cultural diversity, 70 Egyptian, African, and Syrian women have been able to acquire training and exchange knowledge through this form of craft.

“We started last year by teaching the women the craft of quilting because it also teaches the basics of needlework and patchwork. The aim was to teach different kinds of needlework so the women could have experience they could use wherever they go in the future,” explains Sherry Gamal, an artwork supervisor and recent graduate from the German University in Cairo. “Phase two is about teaching the women how to market their products,” she adds.

The project includes 60 women from Ethiopia, Syria, Sudan and Egypt, all living in Hadayek Al-Maadi and Helwan. At the premises of the Tadamon NGO in Maadi that implements the project, the women meet up on a regular basis armed with needle and thread and lots of stories to stitch as their voices fill the air. Among the group is Ragaa Hemdan, a Sudanese woman who came to Egypt five years ago. “The NilFuratproject is like a gathering of sisters where I feel happy and time flies by,” she said.

Sawsan Suleiman, another of the women trainees, is a Sudanese refugee who came to Egypt in 2011. After being released from her work in Sudan, she sought Egypt as she thought it held out a better future for her and her twin sons. She knew nothing about handicrafts, let alone needlework, when she started, but she has been quick to learn. “I used to hold the needle upside down and hurt my hands every time I used it,” she remembers, laughing. “But now I have learnt I can do everything I want with it.”

 Suleiman talks about her daily schedule, which involves starting at 5 am and going by metro to Awseem to buy the special flour used to bake kessra bread, a traditional Sudanese bread, for Sudanese people in her neighbourhood. “It’s a five-hour daily trip,” she explains. Now that she has learnt another skill that can help her provide a better income for her family, she is very happy.

Roqaya Haddad, an Egyptian woman who owns a small sewing business, explains that she has learnt much more than quilting through the workshops. “We have learnt from scratch how to pick a design, how to be thorough, how to colour coordinate, as well as how to deal with life and face our problems,” she said. “I remember what one lecturer told us in particular — that a person must link thought with action and not be trapped in over-thinking. I started to implement this insight in my own life and it changed a lot for me,” Haddad said.

The collaborative art work promoted by the NGO offers room for dialogue between people from very different backgrounds. “Everybody thinks about the product and the motifs they want to use. If we are talking about waves, for example, each of us draws a traditional wave — the kind that is usual in the culture they come from — and then uses that in a product that reflects different forms of waves,” Gamal explains, adding that some products include traditional games representing each country and are sold together as one pack.

For Mary Mehi from South Sudan the project is a safe haven, a place to communicate with other women, some of them Egyptian and others Syrian, and to build a social circle.

In a booklet documenting the stories of some of the women taking part in the NilFurat Project, other similar stories can be found, many of them describing the designs used in the quilts. One woman from Syria writes that in her piece “the colour red symbolises the blood we have seen a lot of in Syria, though because of my children I have made an effort to face this reality. The colour white and the flowers represent optimism and the hope for a beautiful future.”

An Egyptian woman writes of her piece that “the colours represent my children — white is for peace, green is for a better future, black is for difficult times, and yellow is for the shining sun.”

“The idea of quilting came from the fact that it’s one of the oldest forms of handicrafts and is the origin of the art of khayameya (patchwork). It also gives room for story-telling and space for the women to reflect on their own stories,” explains Manal Saleh, a representative of the company that implements NilFurat.

“The main goals were to help the women to market their handicrafts and to upgrade skills as well as to create an informal support network for the women who are part of the project because research shows that women can provide a form of support for each other through activities such as needlework. It is a form of relaxation and meditation, and it brings out positive energy,” Saleh says.

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