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Handmade Dolls Tell Stories of Struggle and Hope from War-Torn Syria

Created by two Syrian sisters in Lebanon, the dolls in the Ana Collection are decorated with images representing the fears and dreams of people living through the conflict raging in Syria.

Written by Alexandra Bradford Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
In Beirut, Syrian refugee women living at the Shatila settlement camp embroider the dolls for the Ana Collection through a women’s workshop, motivated by both the income and the sense of community. Courtesy of the Ana Collection

One day in February last year, Marianne Moussalli sat in L’Atelier, her studio in Beirut, where she teaches art to local children. On that particular day, Moussalli, 31, was deep in thought about the conflict raging in Syria. A Syrian herself, she moved from her hometown of Aleppo to Beirut in 2003 to attend the American University. She spent a lot of time thinking about the people she left behind, including a beloved aunt and uncle still living in western Aleppo.

Moussalli’s concerns often focus on Syria’s children, who in besieged areas are living without access to basic necessities, including medical care and proper nutrition. In weekly phone conversations with her aunt, who asked not to be named due to security concerns, Moussalli heard about the everyday struggles of Syrians living against the backdrop of war. Haunted by these narratives, she decided to use her talents as an artist to help spread the word about what was happening in her home country.

Moussalli enlisted the help of her sister, 29-year-old Melina, and together they began to craft handmade dolls whose bodies were illustrated with the stories passed to the two artists by their aunt. “I asked my aunt to send me stories [of Syrian children],” says Moussalli. “Some children draw their stories, and other kids have their stories written in letters by their parents, and others just tell my aunt their stories.”

Many of the stories are about the hopes and dreams that the children have for their futures juxtaposed with the fears that come from living in a war zone. Each doll is given the name of the person it represents and after it’s sold, the proceeds go back to that person in Syria.

So far, the Ana Collection – “ana” means “I am” in Arabic – consists of four series of dolls. The most popular series, “From Inside Aleppo,” is made up of 33 stories from children and parents living in Aleppo.

One of the most popular dolls in that series is embroidered with seven blue fish floating above what appears to be an ocean floor of red and green seaweed. The doll tells the story of Amal, a little girl whose parents are planning to escape Aleppo and go to Europe by boat. But Amal is afraid to leave Aleppo by sea, says Moussalli, because she is scared of the fish in the ocean.

In November, the Ana Collection will launch a new series called “The Journey,” which will consist of three dolls depicting the journeys that refugees have taken as they fled Syria.

Since the launch of the Ana Collection, the gathering of stories and crafting of dolls has turned into a family affair, with Moussalli’s aunt passing the stories back to Moussalli, who then works with her parents and sister to create the prototype for each doll. Once the samples are complete, Moussalli takes them to be embroidered by Syrian refugee women living at the Shatila settlement camp in Beirut.

“We wanted to give jobs to these Syrian refugee women,” says Moussalli. “When I told the women about the project and that they would be embroidering the stories of fellow Syrians back in Syria, they were ten times more motivated to do the work because they knew they would be helping those back in Syria in their own way, too.”

Each of the dolls in the collection is named after the person whose story inspires its design, and proceeds from the sale of the doll go back to that person in Syria. (Courtesy of the Ana Collection)

There are currently around 50 refugee women working with the Ana Collection and all are members of the women’s workshop run by Basmeh & Zeitooneh, an NGO that aims to empower Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The workshop supplies the women with a place to come together as a community and earn a sustainable wage, says Saba Sader, project manager of the women’s workshop.

Many of the women working for the Ana Collection were housewives back in Syria and once in Lebanon they lacked the skill sets to find jobs outside of the home, says Sader. Being part of the women’s workshop has taught them that they can become self-sufficient and earn their own income. “We hear a lot of women say that when they go back to Syria, they want to apply the skills they have learned here and use them for a future [job],” says Sader.

But for these women, working for the Ana Collection isn’t just about the money. It also provides a therapeutic outlet for those whose displacement has left them sad and fearful for their futures. Sader says that many of the women see their own worries represented in the dolls. One of the refugee women identified with Amal’s story because she, too, is afraid of the fish in the ocean. Seeing that others share the same traumas and anxieties helps the refugee women realize that they are not alone, Sader says.

“They feel like they are also telling their own stories in an implicit way by executing the designs, they do relate to the stories,” she says.

And while many of the dolls depict stories of fear and sadness, they also represent the hope that Syrians have for a future without war and displacement. According to Moussalli, many of the embroiderers have begun teaching their own children how to sew, so they, too, might be able to use the skill to illustrate the stories of those who remain in Syria.

Stories like the one Moussalli’s aunt heard from five-year-old Fadi: His doll is illustrated with a bride and groom, because when Moussalli’s aunt asked what he wanted for his future, he told her that all he wanted was to survive the conflict so he can reach adulthood. “I want to grow up and get married,” he said.

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