Three sisters fleeing the war in Syria are among those who have learned new handicraft skills through a UN-run project, and who are now selling their wares via social enterprise Yadawee. When sisters Samar, Ebtessam and Amal El-Safady fled to Egypt from Syria, none of them thought they would still be living and working in Cairo seven years later.
However, with the Syrian crisis continuing, their plans to return home never became a reality and Samar, Ebtessam and Amal are now settled in Egypt indefinitely with their families. With free time on their hands, willingness to learn – and some uncertainty about what they were signing up for – the three sisters encouraged each other in 2013 to join a new project called NilFurat, an initiative run by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that aimed to empower women in countries around the Nile and Furat rivers by teaching them creative skills.
Amal recalls: “Ebtessam and Samar told me: ‘Amal, there’s a project that we signed up to be part of and we’d like for you to join us.’ At first, I was hesitant because I lived far away.” When she joined, she found a group of women from “almost all nationalities” and cultures: Egyptians, Syrians, Ethiopians, Sudanese.
“We started with very simple handicrafts: needle and thread work. We learned decent skills at the beginning like designing a product, concept, drawing and production – to take it from an idea to a product. We underwent extensive training and now we can sew, print, design and produce a full product,” explains Amal, who like Ebtessam had been a housewife back in Syria (while Samar was a seamstress and now works at Nilfurat and at her own hairdressing salon).
Almost four years later, NilFurat is still going strong, and now serves as a ‘cluster’ – or creative hub – for Yadawee, a social enterprise that produces and exports Egyptian handicrafts.
Over the years, Yadawee has worked with several clusters, and typically those which have formed organically. “Organic clusters are the ones where no one has interfered, especially the government, in forming them – so they were formed naturally and they grow naturally,” explains Yadawee’s founder, Hisham El-Gazzar. “Egypt has around 145 ‘organic’ clusters, 90 of them working with handicrafts.”