12.26.135:45 AM ET

Syria's Sewing Circles

Displaced by war, a group of Syrian refugees have created an innovative work collective to harness their sewing skills and create much-needed jobs.

Marwa Sayd Essa has big plans for the sewing workshop she co-founded and single-handedly manages. It already employs almost 90 displaced Syrian women—indirectly supporting as many families—and ships goods across the globe, but for her this is only a start. In the coming months and years, she intends to provide work for many, many more of Syria’s involuntary expatriates.

It is not a career path that Essa could have predicted. She studied architecture and engineering at university in Syria, but fled to Turkey to escape the violence.

Now she is one of the many exiled Syrians who, as conflict tears apart their homeland, are adjusting to the prospect of a life outside its borders—a life utterly detached from the carefully laid plans of peacetime.

As the Syrian uprising degenerated into bloody civil war with no obvious endpoint, Essa realized that longer-term, sustainable solutions would be required to help provide a livelihood for her compatriots. The idea behind her response came late last year, while discussing these issues with a friend, Fatima, on the balcony of Syrian aid group Watan’s offices in the southern Turkish border town of Reyhanli. “We were sitting there with nothing to do and talking about our thoughts. I felt my revolution needed some work for people. Fatima felt that also,” she says. “Syrian women need jobs and need money and no one was taking care of that.”

Fatima mentioned she had recently seen a man buy a traditional Turkish shawl from a women in a Reyhanli market for around 12 Turkish lira (around $5), even though it was worth at least double that. “People were getting [the better] of women without giving them their rights and the price that they deserve for their work,” Essa says.

The duo drew up a proposal for a sewing workshop operating on a profit-sharing basis and took it to Mulham al-Jundy, who heads Watan’s operations in Turkey and the north and east of Syria, to ask for funding. He approved and the project got under way in December 2012 in a center owned by Watan’s Khayr Charity Foundation.

Operations expanded rapidly. The project now employs 80 women in manufacturing roles and a further eight in administrative positions. Fatima, however, is now married and lives in Gaziantep, so Essa manages the whole operation herself.

It produces a variety of goods, including scarves, baby blankets and cases for laptop and tablet computers. New employees receive training, so that they learn to make the various pieces on offer and gain a skill that will help them make a living even away from the workshop. Essa is sticking to her management duties. “There’s no time to learn myself!” she smiles. “The number [of women] here is increasing day by day and we plan to add more.”

From the start, the intention was to create high-quality products, which would sell for a good price, rather than merchandise that would only appeal to a humanitarian customer base. “The workshop is not just making Syrian flags or something silly like that,” al-Jundi says. “And we are not distributing the things made here for free, we are selling them at a high price because they’re very good quality.”

The same ornate traditional Turkish-style shawl Fatima saw being sold in the market is made there, too, after local women taught the workshop staff the design. Now, it earns its makers 25 lira ($12).

There is real customer demand. Products made in the workshop are currently being shipped to destinations including the U.S., Canada, Europe and the Gulf.

Nevertheless, they are distributed primarily through Watan’s offices and the project’s operating model is still based around its aid organization roots. Essa has far broader plans. “We are working to change the whole organization from a humanitarian one to something with a real business case,” she says.

The next step in doing so, she adds, is to incorporate the project into a company registered in Turkey, separate from Watan. That way it can import materials and export goods more easily. After that, a name and logo will be required. The company will likely be christened Hikaya, meaning “story” in Arabic. “We decided to name it that because we believe every product has a story; the story of the woman that makes it,” says Essa. Marketing strategies surrounding that concept are currently being developed as well as a website and a more developed online presence.

There are also plans to expand to more locations. Workshops will not be established inside Syria due to the danger of the ongoing war and sheer logistical difficulties involved, but new operations will likely be established alongside the many refugee camps in Turkey’s border regions. At each one, Essa says, they could find employment for tens or even hundreds of women. She stresses, however, that expansion must not take place at the expense of product quality. With that in place, she is confident of a bright future. “When we talk about building a business case, we are not talking about just 80 women. Maybe we will reach thousands.”