By Anna Tuson, Small Projects Istanbul Communications Manager and Project Manager
Wander off the main road and down the narrow streets of the lively neighbourhood of Çapa in Istanbul’s Fatih district, and you’ll find a pretty special place. You’ll come across a few children playing outside, speaking a mixture of Turkish and Arabic, with volunteers from Asia, America or Europe keeping a watch over them. Peer in the window dominated by a large orange olive tree stencil, through the bright green curtains, and you’ll witness an immensely bustling scene of productivity and determination, mixed with chatter and laughter.
It’s unlikely you’ll be noticed. The women here are far too busy focusing on their knitting, sewing, macramé or silversmithery, and the volunteer team managing the project, a Syrian, a Turkish-German, an Australian and a New Zealander, barely come up for air all day either. Thirty pairs of knitting needles click away, sewing machines whir and tiny hammers tap against pieces of silver that’s being carefully formed into beautiful jewelry. If you can squeeze in, because this place is small and it’s crowded, take a gulp of that energy - and marvel. These women are something else.
Welcome to the Olive Tree Women’s Craft Collective.
Having survived all manner of horrific situations due to the conflict in Syria, and fleeing to Turkey leaving possessions, homes, jobs, family, community and security behind, the women participating in the craft collective keep heart and look to the future, concentrating on rebuilding sustainable and dignified lives for themselves and their children.
Small Projects Istanbul set up its Olive Tree Community Center in Çapa in mid-2015, originally to provide supplemental and community education to Syrian refugees. In direct response to the stated need from the community it serves, it then ran a pilot program for the craft collective as an initiative to provide skills building and livelihood support to Syrian women. Following the successful pilot and enthusiastic response from the participants, we launched our program to run the collective on a permanent basis.
The women make gemstone and sterling silver woven bracelets, organic cotton tote bags, knitted hats and scarves, and artisanal sterling silver rings. The young women working on the rings, mostly in their early twenties, have now also taken on responsibility for making the trip to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar to buy the silver chips then take it to the smith to have it melted with a touch of copper to create the 925 sterling, and oversee it molded and stretched into the long workable strip they will create the jewelry from – practicing their Turkish and bargaining skills as well.
The products are sold at Luna Park’s store in Galata and Pages Bookstore and Café in Fatih, Istanbul, and through our partners Twelv12 and grandbazaarjewlers.com. After the cost of materials, all profit goes directly back to the women that made the products in the form of food vouchers, as it is illegal to give cash to refugees in Turkey. We also have a partnership with Bridges to Turkey, for whom the women are knitting 300 sets of hats and scarves that the NGO will donate to children in need in the south of Turkey.
Without the craft collective the vast majority of these women would not be able to earn any income, and many are supporting children on their own as the fathers are still in Syria or have gone on to try and reach Europe. They are from all over Syria, and from a range of educational and professional backgrounds. While some have never worked outside their homes before, others are highly educated and had careers in their home towns.
In this mixed and multicultural environment, an extremely positive and invaluable offshoot is the friendships and relationships that build up between the collective participants and with the SPI volunteer team too. Women who would otherwise be isolated are able to rebuild a sense of community and are exposed to people from all over the world who care about them, which they tell us significantly improves their wellbeing.
Where they would otherwise sit at home feeling stressed, bored and depressed, having something purposeful to do helps alleviate those feelings and coming together to spend two days a week with other women in the same situation is also hugely therapeutic. It’s also a break from childcare thanks to the fabulous volunteers that take care of the younger children and organize activities for them, managed by SPI Founder Karyn Thomas. This makes the craft collective a very warm place of laughter and support – and sometimes tears, where friendships are built and stories shared.
One participant from Damascus, Sausan, says she loves the work itself as well as the time with the other women. While her husband remains in Syria, she came to Turkey so her children could have a better future but was unprepared for the high prices of basic living expenses. She joined the collective when she was unable to find a job.
Reem, who left Zabdani with hopes of a better future for her children too, says she joined the Olive Tree Craft Collective because she wants to build a decent life again, like she used to have in Syria. “It’s very hard to cover all the costs, but I want to move on from everything that’s happened and have a new start. I lost my country and I don’t want to lose my children’s future as well.” Reem says she likes coming to the craft collective as there’s a community of Syrian families, and she really enjoys the work she’s doing.
“It’s a good job - it’s respectful,” says Amal, who worked in a laundromat in Syria. She says even though they’re not able to earn a lot of money through the collective, the additional income helps a lot. “It’s a really nice opportunity to meet new people as well.”
Zeina, a grandmother from Hama, agrees. “I like coming here as well because I can use my sewing skills, and it’s wonderful getting together with other Syrian women.” Zeina is desperate to earn money as she needs to pay for medicine for her husband who has just had heart surgery, as well as cover rent and food. She says a lack of income is the main problem for them living in Istanbul, but she’s hoping for a better life.
The women clearly take pride in participating in something productive and contributing to their families’ wellbeing in such a definitive way – for many it’s the first time they’ve worked outside of their homes. You can see their confidence growing as they learn new skills and see the value of what they’re doing and producing as they get something in return. It’s not charity – we have clearly explained that SPI doesn’t have extra money to pay for livelihood support so this project must be self-sustainable and we can only pay them from what we can sell, so the products must meet high standards. Fortunately the women are extremely skilled and are quick to learn.
The collective participants also learn about and are encouraged to join in the other educational programs offered at the community center, including Turkish, English and German classes as well as the legal information sessions held in partnership with the American Bar Association to inform Syrians about their rights in Turkey.
While policy around allowing refugees to legally work in Turkey is now set to change, Syrian refugees have so far not been allowed to participate in the formal workforce. Even once they are legally allowed to work, they will face many obstacles such as the language barrier, which prevents them from doing many of the jobs they would have done in their own country and pushes them to seek other kinds of employment, usually at a much lower skill level for those that were professionals in Syria.
Syrians have also faced discrimination in the workforce and are taken advantage of by employers. They are often paid much lower wages, and there have been many reported cases of sexual and violent assault as well as rampant child labor.
There are also a large number of refugees who are relatively unskilled, and unfortunately the job market at this level is already saturated in Turkey with unemployment at 10%. While allowing them legal status as employees should help the situation, competition for jobs and desperation for any kind of income will continue to drive bad conditions. There may also be backlash from the Turkish community who perceive Syrians to be taking jobs and depriving locals.
We have seen the huge need for employment and sustainable income as the number of women participating in the Olive Tree Craft Collective grew very quickly. Many more would like to join but we are now at maximum capacity with 50 members. Unfortunately we cannot expand and take on more women until we receive enough donations to allow us to rent to a larger space and provide more equipment. We also have to cap the amount of items even the current members can make as we are limited by what we’re able to sell, which is a shame as they are all eager to work more.
Beyond buying the products made in the Olive Tree Craft Collective to support the women and their families, readers can also help by making a donation to SPI to help us meet our running costs, either through our indiegogo campaign:https://www.generosity.com/education-fundraising/small-projects-istanbul...
Or a paypal or bank transfer – details available on our website:http://www.smallprojectsistanbul.org/donate/