It may look like a cell phone, but it’s really a catalog.
Nasra’s daughter flips through screen after screen of images—all of them dresses her mom has made. It is immediately obvious Nasra loves working with contrasting fabrics. Special details pop, even in the small thumbnail images.
I look closely at a purple flowered dress, so her daughter taps to make the image full screen—the message "LOVE U" can now be seen, spelled out in dark fabric and trim at the neckline.
Between sips of hot, sugary tea served in tiny glasses, we learn of Nasra’s flair for design. Not from her words... Nasra doesn’t talk much about how she approaches her work. And not from her home. Her rental home is old, small, and spare—void of personal touches.
It is her work itself that speaks—or rather, shouts of Nasra’s creativity.
Ruffles trace around the neckline and sleeve edge of the slim, red housedress. Nasra’s daughter holds her arm a little higher so we can see the detail in better light. She is proud to show off her mother’s handiwork.
The fabric commonly used for dresses in Iraq, easy-to-care-for synthetics, doesn’t fray at the edges. Nasra uses every scrap of material she purchases. She creates her own trims instead of buying expensive extras. Long slices are gathered into ruffles to adorn necklines and sleeve seams. Smaller shapes are fashioned into beautiful patterns or roses. The simplest dress shapes are elevated by the detail she adds.
There is little in Nasra’s life that she has any control over. She had no say when ISIS forced her from her home back in Fallujah. She had no say in the loss of community and everything she had ever known.
She is not able to communicate with loved ones in Fallujah—to make her phone calls get through, to find out how they are faring in the aftermath of war.
But her sewing designs? This is something Nasra has full control over.
There is a particular kind of pain that comes with losing everything to terrorists.
The displaced families from Fallujah who came north experience another level of pain when they finally landed somewhere safe—the pain of being unwanted. For many Kurds over the age of 30, the wave of Arab refugees felt too much like Saddam Hussein’s Arabization schemes of the past, when the regime used Arab families as a tool to alter the ethnic and cultural makeup of the region to be more sympathetic to Hussein’s rule.
The present situation is nothing like that of the past—these families were running for their lives. Kurds are polite, of course. But there isn’t always the warmth that is needed for real community to form.
Displaced Arabs like Nasra and Mahasin—another seamstress setting up her own business with an empowerment grant—are reminded daily that they don’t quite fit in. They don’t speak the local languag,e and they practice different customs. Some adapt by trying to blend in. Mahasin adapts my making her mark.
In Mahasin’s home, everything is at the ready to sit down and begin a new creation the moment inspiration strikes—and it strikes often. Her sewing machine sits on a little table, threaded with teal thread. Behind, an ironing board. Below, baskets and bags of clothing in various stages of being re-made.
Unlike Nasra’s focused creativity, Mahasin’s spills out onto her whole life. The dingy walls of her old rental home are now painted two-thirds up in a peachy-silver wash. Large flowers are hand-drawn on the upper walls—huge pink blooms and dark green leaves. She flips through a small, lined notebook filled with her fashion designs, sketches, and poetry.
The name Mahasin means "one who has many talents." She wears her name well.
Mahasin is most passionate about re-purposing existing pieces. Tops are taken apart and given a different style. Extra pieces of fabric become embellishments on clothing she already owns, making them better suit her complexion. And scarves—Mahasin has a special love for scarves—they are transformed into everything from tops to lingerie.
Mahasin also uses her phone as catalogue of her wares, but she has her own unique way of showing clients a range of fashion styles without using anything more than fabric scraps. She has dozens of designs worked up in miniature—halter dresses, fancy tops, dresses with high necks and long trains. Mahasin is able to fully explore her creativity and unique style through these tiny samples.
She gets inspiration everywhere—television shows, magazines, the scarves she loves so much hanging from displays in the bazaar. She is driven to make custom, one-of-a-kind garments and dreams of high fashion suitable for the best runway show.
In reality though, Mahasin is a woman displaced—a wife and mother who needs to help provide for her family. She’s not a reality show candidate. Like Nasra, Mahasin has little control over her current situation.
But you gave her the tools to create change.
The empowerment grants you give provided more than a sewing machine and supplies. For the women now sewing garments for a living, your investment boosts the satisfaction they get out of their days, provides the kind of joy that comes from exercising your gifts, and offers the sheer pleasure of working with lovely fabrics to create something beautiful and useful… all while helping them provide for their families.
You give more than a business. You restore the color to life.