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I’m a cat from Syria”: Speaking of war, separation and pain through weaving

Reyhanli is a small town situated on the border of Turkey and Syria where there was a large influx of refugees after the Syrian civil war broke out. In this town, more than 20 NGOs stand in readiness for providing humanitarian assistance. One kind of NGO makes one clinging to very little hope.With donations received from international organizations, this NGO built very humble shelters with tin roofs and rows of single beds that house people who await to meet their ultimate destiny of deaths. Very little dignity remains in this place and most will die regretfully.

These are the refugees from Syria, gravely ill and severely incapacitated. Most of them are in the company of neither their families nor friends. Each single bed lies a weakened body with an injured soul on one half, with the other half cluttered with scanty personal belongings in torn plastic bags. One meal is offered per day, with people knowing the unspoken reality that the residents will not have many more meals before the end of their life. Agonizing moans of despair occasionally drown the shelter, but ultimately too faint to penetrate beyond the tin roofs.

 

This place has very little hope, and people with a grim future live here. It is beyond my ability to help. It is also beyond the ability of the newly established Taiwan-Reyhanli Centre for World Citizens to help.

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Generating incomes through handicrafts? It is harder than you think.

Taiwan-Reyhanli Centre for World Citizens may not survive for an extended period of time if financial sustainability is not secured, but its commitment to help these people in need remains firm. We decide to provide assistance to children first, but such mission ought to start with helping their mothers.  

How would such mission succeed in this small border town, in the absence of financial resources, facilities, enterprises and skillset, and amidst the unrelenting financial and refugee crisis in Turkey as well as the global coronavirus pandemic?

In Reyhanli, over two-thirds of women are unemployed. They are mostly widows, or their husbands have lost the ability to work. They carried their children on foot for many days and nights crossing the Syrian-Turkey border, before deciding to stay put because they no longer had the strength. They – the old, the wounded, the women, and the children – had all embarked on a journey of no return. They wanted to continue their journeys to Europe because they all well knew that Reyhanli, in its current conditions, would not offer them the opportunities for securing a stable livelihood, a good education and a brighter future.

As the Chief Executive of the Taiwan-Reyhanli Centre for World Citizens, how could I create opportunities for them in these desperate circumstances?

I have witnessed local NGO’s attempts to assist these women by encouraging them to participate in handicraft enterprises. But two problems remained unresolved: first, most products were unsold because of non-existent market, and the products were very similar in characteristics; secondly, the margins were too low or had the middlemen taking much of the share. As a result, these women had put in great efforts but had secured only meagre income to insufficient for sustaining a stable livelihood.

I asked the NGOs, “Why do you still continue with the production given the low demand for the products?” The answer was, “If we didn't, we would all have lost our employment and only income, because we are not well known and have no other streams of financial supports”. I then asked the NGOs, “Why do you still sell the products through the unscrupulous middlemen?” They said, “If not them, who would?”

These are the difficult positions of all the NGOs in the area. To me, these also present opportunities.

First of all, I will need to lift the product quality based on existing craftmanship so as to generate a higher demand. Secondly, I will need to help with product sales and help them to engage with markets beyond the border of Turkey given the poor domestic economic conditions. Finally, I will work together with these women on fair financial terms, while assisting the operation of the network of NGOs. These NGOs must not fail.

From artistic creation, they express their stories.

My assistant Walid and I worked with 5 local NGOs. I bought a large quantity of knitting wools and crochet hooks at my own costs, and asked women to knit kittens and puppies. I initially thought that local women would be familiar with knitting skills. But I soon realised that they lacked sufficient artistic training, and had no general concepts on design, aesthetics, and colours. After seeing the first outputs of poorly constructed unidentified aliens, we decided to go back to square one, and taught them drawing and designing.  Stroke by stroke, they gradually put their designs for the kittens and puppies on papers; stitch by stitch, they realised the forms of these “MeowMeows” and “WoofWoofs”.

To me, each of these women should be an artist. They are not factory workers enslaved by the global capitalist market. They should have their individual designs expressed in their own original styles. The differences and uniqueness of their works will encourage diversity without any unhelpful competitions. More importantly, these are the efforts of artists, not commercial commodities. If you could help them by purchasing these products, they will send these works of art with appreciations. What you’ll receive are not products from online shopping, but blessings and friendships from afar.

I have kindly requested these women to personalise their design of a soap pouch with an exquisite Aleppo soap included.  We can use these handwoven “MeowMeows” and “WoofWoofs” for a bath or shower, and can easily hang them up during and after shower. On average, every woman requires a full day to knit two soap pouches, which corresponds to 60 pouches per month. This means that each pouch covers one-sixtieth of the family’s monthly living expenses. This is far higher than the women's current incomes received from the local NGOs. To avoid unhelpful competition with the local NGOs, the Taiwan-Reyhanli Centre for World Citizens directly cooperates them. All production and training are carried out with these NGOs, while allowing the NGOs to share part of the profits to maintain their operations.

In the past 5 months, a total of 150 women have joined the team to produce MeowMeows WoolfWoolfs. Upon learning the design and knitting skills at the NGOs, the women took it home and knit at their own pace. This allows them to be able to generate incomes without having to leave the house, while able to maintain their homemaker roles. Up to now, 50 designs of MeowMeows and WoolfWoolfs are ready for sale. Furthermore, women with more advanced skills are helping each other to weave the WoolfWoolf scarves – our next line of products.

A view of women in front of the center.

Meanwhile, we have produced documentaries for every woman at our own cost. They told their stories in front of the camera through the little animals that they had woven, sharing with the viewers their plights and their courage in overcoming adversities. One must understand such courage because for these women, showing their faces on screen is considered an offense and a violation of modesty under conservative Islamic teachings; but these women also long to be heard by others, as they have never been given the rights to speak out and be heard. They are keenly aware that they are speaking out not only to help her own families but also for the thousands of displaced refugees who continue to struggle in Syria.

Today’s refugee problem is the consequence of our collective ignorance, refusal to listen, and inaction. We all know that an abandon kitten on the roadside is so weak and vulnerable. But three kittens standing in a row may attract attentions, while ten kittens meowing together will definitely be memorable. In the near future, the Taiwan-Reyhanli Centre for World Citizens will host 1,001 ‘meows’, and the whole world will join their voices with Taiwan in support of these refugees.

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Every named MeowMeow has its stories.

Every Meowy story is captivating. 

Every Meowy profit goes to charity.

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Any long or short puppy is a good puppy.

Ten days of handwork, a puppy.

Every puppy is the hard work of Syrian women.