I have the most wonderful friend back in my hometown, who pushes to sell her designer clothes using a phrase now so familiar, and non-persuasive to me, "but it's a piece, there is none like it." Whenever she says that my mind turns to our humble ladies, dressed in the most simple of garments, willing to give whatever they have to those more needy, ladies who have not been outside the camp but whose aspirations reach the runways of Paris and beyond, the life that is in their dreams. When thinking of my fashionista friend and our lowly ladies, I connect with the comment written by Virginia Woolf in Orlando. “There is much to support the view that it is the clothes that wear us, and not we them. We may make them take the model of an arm or a breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”
The Biblical study of the role and legacy of clothing is totally fascinating, one which I do not have time to develop in this article but will share a few tidbits before focusing upon our Sewing Hope ladies. My thoughts regarding this ancient legacy, some of which perhaps took place “just down the road” do relate to our ladies coming from the captivity of ISIS to the security and freedom of our sewing room. Take for example the Biblical narrative which opens with the description of Adam and Eve as naked ( arumim ) , the same word that is then used in the following verse to describe the cunning nature of the snake ( arum ). Aviva Zornberg writes “the first actual clothing was granted to them as a gift from God to cover shame. Clothing makes us, yet testifies to our undoing. It lends us dignity, yet reveals that gap that clothing covers over in leather, velvet, silk or other trim.”
Our ladies know only too well the legacy of shame, of the black garments of ISIS, of feeling naked upon their release, their bodies, their hands, their heads, their faces, their feet being totally covered yet living with a huge void, and massive gap that no material covering could hide, or fill. Bear with me in a short progression. Clothing is a central aspect in the narrative of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph, as we know, was given a cloak of distinction which became the target of jealousy, the source of undoing as the blood-stained garment once stripped from him became a mis-recognition, became a false testimony, an alibi and a framing for their sale of him into slavery. His brothers, in the tearing of Joseph’s garments became a picture of the wild beasts that they related to their grieving father in their betrayal.
Can you see the parallels with the sale of our sewing ladies into the slavery of ISIS, the way that their Yezidi clothes were stripped from them, that they were pronounced dead and sent off to the stronghold of Raqqa. How often grieving families were told that their children were dead. Our ladies lived alongside their neighbours, who wore clothes similar to theirs, yet one day the day to day covering came off and they donned the black uniforms of the Caliphate which had been lying in wait in their houses. They stripped themselves, bared themselves and betrayed their Yezidi friends and neighbours, devouring them as they mantled themselves in black.
The legacy of clothing in the Bible is incredible, one of both covetousness, betrayal and yet holiness as in the priestly garments, but for today we will place our attention with the Sewing Hope ladies who are sewing their legacy, one built with purpose and plan, one stitched with hope and the promise of future.
I turn to our wonderful friend and communications mentor, Miss Debra who works with our ladies and share her voice:
“I often ask them for what an item of clothing is suitable. Their remarks, “for going out, for going to the beach (in a landlocked region which anyway does not permit women to strip down for the non-existent beach)” showed me how their dresses are often aspirational, often intended for the life that they hope to live one day. As we prepared for our magnum opus, the Fashion Show that we held in March, in response to my question, “What do you want people to see and take away from the event?” they replied “No matter what happens to you in life, you should have hope, your dreams should not be stolen, you must hold onto hope.” There was one day when I noticed that the sewing room was almost bare, the usual colour of dresses vying for places of beauty on the racks was empty. When I enquired as to their whereabouts ( three times I asked Sahla to repeat the translation to make sure I was not missing something ) they told me that they had given them away to “those less fortunate than themselves, to the street cleaners wives, and to the poor and orphans of the community." - DB
A new legacy, a new history for clothing is being quietly stitched together, one based upon dignity and respect, one based upon care for the downtrodden and vulnerable. Debra and I are so very proud of these women. Lessons from the Sewing Room are being written which we will begin to post weekly on our Springs of Hope Foundation App. We encourage you to track with these women and participate in the legacy that these ladies are creating.
Before I move on to hopes for the future, I would like to share with you the story of one. You will meet her as M. It is vital to embrace the past in order to envision and engage with the future.
M is now 32 years old, born into a Yezidi family with 5 brothers and sisters all of whom are now dead. Her immediate cousins are dead. Her aunts and uncles are dead. All killed by ISIS.
M has no schooling, as the eldest of her sisters she stayed at home to help her Mum with the household chores.
M was at home when ISIS invaded her village and kidnapped her and her family. They gave her father and four of her brothers (the fifth brother was living in Kurdistan) three opportunities to convert to Islam. When they refused, they were all shot in front of her eyes. Once slain, all gold, cellphones and possessions were stripped from their corpses.
She and her mother were transported to Badush jail where her mother was then taken from her. She later recognised her mother’s clothes and possessions in a mass grave although her bones have yet to be identified.
Once the mothers of the community were slaughtered, the girls including M were taken to the slave markets of Raqqa. Sensing a good financial deal a Daeshi called Shex Said purchased her , and made a fast profit by selling her to Abu Obeida Shammi, a Syrian. He took her home, tied her to the bed with rope and raped her until she lost consciousness. As he raped her, he laughed saying “Now I will attain the highest place in heaven by raping a Yezidi virgin."
Abu Obeida’s wife enlisted her as a full time slave. Slave by day with full punishment for any reason, raped and tortured by night. Five times she fought to resist rape and was beaten until half dead. Five times she tried to escape and was caught. Upon being caught and returned for the fifth time Abu Obeida took her to the front lines, to see the methodology of slaughter up close. “If you dare to resist me again, if you dare to try to escape, this is how and where your life will end" he warned her.
After five long years, Abu Obeida was killed in “the line of duty" to the Caliphate. M became a free woman, as such she was finally permitted to initiate contact with her surviving brother H who lived in Kurdistan. Negotiations for her ransom were made via an ISIS captor and Abu Obeida’s widow who demanded a share of the spoils.
A ransom price of $2000 was agreed upon. M. was handed over to an intermediary. H arrived with the ransom money which he handed over. He was then told that ISIS had shot M. He had a heart attack and died on the spot.
M arrived in Shingal. Alive but alone. She suffers from chronic complex PTSD and depression.
"I love coming to Sewing Hope. I love the lessons. If I stay at home I focus on the dead and become depressed. I am learning to sew, beginning to enjoy colour and desire to teach others that which I am learning. My dream is to open a sewing shop. I know that it is impossible to eradicate all that happened, I will never be able to forget, but the lessons from the sewing room are giving me a new perspective. I am looking at life with a new vision and with new hope. There is a huge gap, a huge emptiness in my life, which is hard to heal and will take much time. The sewing, the designing, thinking about who will wear the clothes I sew, helps me to bridge that gap between death and life, between the loss and the future, the shame and the freedom I now have to learn and express myself." - M
“Hello, I am Nadima, married with a daughter who is 3 years old and I am seven months pregnant. My husband is a carpenter by trade, sometimes he finds employment for a few days at a time in Shariya village. It was him who registered me for the Sewing Hope course. I didn't know about it but he heard from his friends. Truly thank God that you called and invited me to join the course. We come as a family, my daughter comes with me and goes to play while I am studying. My husband is my greatest supporter, if he is at home without work, he will take care of our daughter. I am learning to sew, design and create so one day I will be able to contribute to our family and help my husband. It is wonderful to learn communication and planning skills with Miss Debra as it gives me a plan to move forward. I literally wait all week for my Sewing Hope classes, and count the days and hours between classes. I had no schooling simply because I am female, and my place was considered to be in the house. I am busy watching YouTube so that I will be able to help my children in school one day. My dream is to open a sewing shop." - NADIMA
“I am Bassima, I live in Shariya Camp with my husband and four orphan kids who are my relatives. We raise them as if they were our children. I have always loved sewing but knew nothing about it until I came to The Hope Centre. It was so hard for me at first, I didn't think that I would make it or succeed. It was not all about colour but technique and practice and being exact, making everything good quality. This week I finally got the hang of inserting zips, that one took me a long time. This is my very happy place. All my problems and worries stay outside. I anticipate the moment of arrival every time I come. There is peace and joy in the sewing room, it is alive and welcoming. I am excited to be with friends, friends who are real and accept me as I am. And now I have the gift of a sewing machine in my tent. So if I don't finish my work in class I can take it home and work on it. It also makes mending our children's clothes and sometimes when Miss Lisa gives us material as a gift, then I can make new clothes. I will be successful, and I will continue to learn to make and then sell clothes. The course with Miss Debra is so perfect as she teaches us that nothing happens without thinking ahead and planning, about setting goals and moving towards them. “ - BASSIMA
We are currently examining ways of expanding that will provide these heroines an income. Yes, they can teach others within the sewing room but they need to be out displaying their clothes, selling and generating income for themselves and their family. Income is one way of clothing themselves with dignity. We are looking at small shops to rent in the village. Yes, we can find a shop in one second inside the camp, but that in reality will devalue their work. They need to be in the village and reach both the local village population and those from the camp who shop in the village. Villagers do not visit the camp. I believe this will be the next step for the Sewing Hope ladies, a small shop, a collective run by them, for them which we will need to sponsor for a few months until hopefully they become independent. This is not “it will happen tomorrow” but it is stirring and we are now teaching with an eye on “raising up” on “putting in place” those who have both the capability, wisdom and determination to run such a business. This is also a shift from everything being “not for profit” to realising that the season has changed, the sewing ladies need to work and earn a living, and raise up a younger generation to follow in their footsteps, namely that of empowerment and self-sufficiency.
I return to the words of our friend and mentor Miss Debra by way of conclusion today.
“As I engaged with the recent Festival of Freedom in April, the work of Springs of Hope and of these women loomed large in my thoughts and were on my mind as I prepared for Passover. Jews are obligated to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, each year, to remind ourselves "that once were slaves but now we are free.” In my family, we have a tradition that at this portion of the service, we close our books and have those gathered tell the story based on a guiding question or thought. This year, so influenced by the Sewing Hope ladies, I began with the topic of Resilience. I told those gathered around our table about my work with these ladies, how what I learned from them had helped me think about the story of the Exodus, through the elements of resilience and hope. The elements of Care for Others, Awareness of One’s humanity, and the Need for Community. These Yezidi women live and impart the lessons of resilience daily.” Debra B.