ISTANBUL – Emerging from a crowd of around a dozen women, Farida, a 32-year-old Syrian refugee living in Istanbul, stood in front of a cabinet full of bright and colorful threads and beads. Looking at the materials with friends, she mused what color she should use for her next earring project.
“Let’s not use orange and pink this time,” she murmured to one of her friends, another Syrian refugee.
After picking her favorite colors, she knuckled down at a workshop table at the center of Small Projects Istanbul, housed in a basement in the Fatih neighborhood bustling with dozens of other Syrian women and their children.
“I usually prefer to make the earrings in light colors. My all time favorites are white and blue. White symbolizes hope and peace. Blue is for clarity and pureness,” she said.
Farida’s color choices are a reflection of her past. A year and a half ago, the mother of three fled her home in Aleppo, where she was a housewife and her husband was an Arabic teacher.
For over a year, Farida has participated in the “Drop Earrings, Not Bombs” initiative where she has mastered the art of making brightly colored, drop-shaped earrings.
Run by the NGO Small Projects Istanbul, Drop Earrings, Not Bombs is an income-generation and community-building project enabling around 30 Syrian women like Farida to express themselves through handcrafts.
The drop-earrings the refugee women make are then sold both in stores and online. Aline Joubert, the media manager of Small Projects Istanbul, who is also involved with the project, said each participant makes 300 Turkish lira (around $85) a month with the earrings. The project’s revenue is evenly distributed among the participants. Although a family is unlikely to get by with the earring-making income alone, Joubert said it fills a gap.
“It’s not a lot of money, but it’s not trivial either,” Joubert said. “It’s usually enough for the monthly grocery expenses of a Syrian family here. This way, women can be independent and they don’t have to ask for money from anyone when they’re shopping for groceries. But more importantly, this is the first job many of these women here ever had. It gives them a confidence that they’re able to make a contribution to their households,” she said.
The contribution Farida makes goes a long way, particularly as her husband is currently struggling to find stable employment.
“I love it when one of my children asks for something at a supermarket and I am able to buy it for my child,” she said, with a proud smile.
Many Syrians who have fled their war-torn country for Turkey struggle to support their families. There are more than 2.9 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in Turkey, and more than 225,000 in Istanbul. Unable to find steady jobs, many look for work in the informal labor sector, where “exploitation includes child labor, long working hours, poor health and safety conditions, increased risk of occupational accidents and low wages,” according to a report from the International Migration Institute and the University of Oxford.
What’s more, for women like Farida, attending regular earring-making workshops has benefits that far exceed the modest financial gains.
Research shows that, when a refugee family relocates to a new country, women tend to be particularly vulnerable to social isolation and mental health problems due to language barriers and the constriction of gender roles, especially after fleeing war. However, like many of her peers, Farida has found friendship and a community with her fellow earring-makers.
“Istanbul is a great base for Syrians, but when we first came here we didn’t know anyone,” Farida said.
For many survivors of war and trauma, art and color therapy are proven ways to process past traumas and help with symptoms of illnesses such as depression and PTSD, which many refugee women suffer from.
Farida doesn’t have a home to go back to in Aleppo, and making earrings has allowed her to stop dwelling on her difficult past.
“I’ve never made handcrafts before, and I really like artistically challenging myself. Even if the workshop is over, I will continue trying new things. It’s also a good feeling to think that the earrings I make will be worn by someone in different countries,” Farida said.
“When I am immersed in whites and blues and making these earrings, I just forget all my troubles and focus on a better future.”