At least 2.7 million Syrian refugees have crossed the border into Turkey – and stayed there. Corinne Redfern visits one project that’s hoping to help women find their feet…
With a photo on her phone for guidance, Sandy loops a dark purple thread over and around a gold-plated frame in the shape of a teardrop. Spring-like spirals serve as grooves, and she deftly weaves the thread deep into the base of each one; building layers and colour with every turn. She works carefully – checking her pattern against the grainy image for accuracy – but there’s a quiet rhythm to her movements, and she smiles as she completes the first section and swaps purple for blue. It takes 28 minutes to complete one earring. If she can finish one more in the same time frame, she’ll have earned six Turkish Lira in the space of an hour. It’s the equivalent of one pound – and it’s the most money she’s made since arriving in Istanbul in June this year.
‘I’m not an artist, I’m a computer programmer,’ she says in careful English. ‘I was studying in Aleppo when the war began, and my family decided it was important for me to complete my education, so we waited until my graduation this summer. Then we left.’ With a bag containing a single spare pair of trousers and her mobile phone, she left the house in the middle of the night with her parents and her sister, Reema, 30, and headed for the Turkish border. After walking for eight hours – exhausted and keeping low to the ground for fear of snipers – they were out of Syria. ‘I didn’t know what to expect,’ she tells Marie Claire. ‘I didn’t think it would be so hard to find work here.’
At last count, it’s thought there were over 2.7 million Syrian refugees registered in Turkey. Some of them arrived before the war broke out in 2011. Most of them have turned up since. The borders between the two countries were officially closed in early 2015, but that just covers the official check points. And for many of the 18 million Syrians still trapped in their country, it’s worth walking throughout the night and over the mountaintops if it means reaching safety.
But integration into Turkey isn’t straightforward. Without Turkish residency, Syrian refugees aren’t entitled to benefits or social support, and one-bedroom basement apartments – often windowless and dank – start at 1000 Turkish Lira (£250). That might not sound like much if you’re employed as a computer programmer – but skills don’t seem to count in the same way once you’ve crossed the border.
Enter Drop Earrings Not Bombs. An all-female collective established in order to provide women from Syria with a means of earning money, the workshop was established three months ago by Alparslan Gurbuz, 31. ‘I was volunteering in Samos, Greece, trying to distribute clothing to the refugees there, when it dawned on me that there were millions of refugees in Turkey who weren’t drawing any media attention, or getting any support,’ he recalls.
‘My friend and I talked about it quite extensively before he had the idea of establishing a jewellery project, which would enable refugee women to make earrings – before selling them overseas and keeping the profits. We figured that women are often the ones who need a form of employment that they can fit in around childcare – and by teaching them to make earrings from scratch, then they can do that. They can come into the workshop for a couple of hours to check they’re following the patterns correctly, then take the tools home to make more in their own time, and on their own terms.’
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The pair traveled from Greece to Istanbul, and started looking for places to base their initiative – eventually stumbling across Small Projects Istanbul, located in the basement of a quiet street in the centre of the city. Staffed entirely by volunteers and providing Turkish and English classes to female refugees of all ages, alongside daily childcare and other craft workshops enabling them to make and sell tote bags and t-shirts, SPI supports over 80 women from Syria and Iraq. In other words, it was a perfect fit for Drop Earrings Not Bombs.
‘The difference between Drop Earrings Not Bombs and other craft initiatives is really the autonomy,’ explains Alp – adding that he doesn’t plan to continue overseeing the workshop for long, and hopes that instead, the women will take it over from them once they’re more settled. ‘I know that it’s not a replacement career for them – many of them are highly educated, and incredibly skilled – but this does help them to pay rent on their own. And that’s hugely important if they want to integrate into Turkey.’
For Reem, 33, DENB has given her the first opportunity to buy clothes for her daughter in two and a half years. ‘She’s 13 and a half, and she desperately wants to fit in at school,’ she says. ‘I’ve never made earrings before, but these ones are beautiful, and I feel happy whenever I complete one – it’s like making music with your hands. My husband is an accountant, but he’s struggled to get much work in Istanbul. Many women work in factories here, but I can’t because I need to look after the children. This is the first time I’ve been able to help my family since we left Syria.’
Sandy agrees. ‘I don’t want to do this forever,’ she says. ‘I want to go back to university and train in software development. But at the moment, this is the only means that my sister and I have of making money. We’ve already been through so much. In Aleppo, there was no water, no food, no electricity. I will make a million earrings if it means we never have to experience that again.’
You can buy earrings made by the Drop Earrings Not Bombs collective at dropearringsnotbombs.org.