“Today is the first exhibition in my life,” Fayza Hussein says. “I am so happy. This was always my dream.”
Hussein, 37, is a single woman living with her brother-in-law and sister in the Domiz refugee camp, in Iraq’s Dohuk province. Hussein came from the north-eastern Syrian town of Qamishli around ten months ago and is one of an estimated 60,000 Syrian refugees here – most of them are Syrian Kurds. She has yet to get her own tent.
The exhibition Hussein is taking part in, is being held among tents at the camp’s Serdam Youth Centre. It includes paintings and calligraphy made there during courses for camp youth, as well as entertainment with singing and a theatre performance. Hussein is exhibiting examples from the knitting courses she has been teaching – some is her own work, some is the work of her students.
The centre was established by the United Nations Population Fund, or UNFPA, which, besides promoting reproductive and sexual health, also works to support young people in difficult environments like the Domiz camp.
The UNFPA has established similar spaces inside other refugee camps in the semi-autonomous, northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, says Hussein Hanary, a program analyst with the UNFPA. Besides promoting awareness about reproduction, the youth centres provide a friendly atmosphere and a variety of activities, everything from courses in music, arts and literature to sports training.
Wearing her best traditional Kurdish dress, Hussein places hand-knitted pieces of clothing and accessories on the wire fence at the centre, against a white piece of cloth. There is a gentle wind and clouds in the sky – Hussein looks up, and wishes that it won\'t rain today, on her big day.
“I trained all the girls to do these things,” Hussein explains, while moving a few pieces of clothing around, pinning them firmly to make sure the smaller items are in place, wind proof. “Today we are showing everything we did.”
“I learned knitting from my mother when I was very young. I enjoyed it a lot. My mum is no longer alive, God bless her soul. When I came here, I was told there is a Youth Centre here in the camp. They accepted my project to train some girls in knitting,” Hussein recounts.
Hussein has always had artistic inclinations. “In Syria I went to an arts institute for two years,” she notes. “But because I was a Kurd, they did not recognize my certificate. So I worked as a nurse instead.”
Up until recently Syria’s Kurds were treated as second class citizens in Syria, in attempts to “Arabize” parts of the country where the Kurdish dominated demographically. Although they make up as much at 15 percent of Syria’s population, many were stripped of Syrian citizenship while others were marginalised economically, politically and through legislation. This is why Hussein’s arts institute training was never officially recognised.
Additionally, as she says, “my father was alone and I was the eldest of the 13 children, so I had to work and contribute to the household expenses.”
Here in the camp though, Hussein has trained a number of other young women how to knit professionally. The training she conducts lasts one month and she’s now eager to start with another group of young girls. Today’s exhibition will eventually attract 250 people, some of whom buy pieces of the women’s handiwork.
Sawsan Abdulbaqi, 25, arrives and rushes towards Hussein, a black plastic bag under her arms. Their greeting is warm. “She was my student,” Hussein introduces Abdulbaqi proudly.
“My students all call me teacher when I walk around in the camp. They all know me,” Hussein says. “It’s a nice feeling when people know you for something good.”
Abdulbaqi says she started off with very basic knitting skills. But now after the training, she can knit with five knitting needles at once. “I have three young kids,” Abdulbaqi says. “I can’t work, there are no jobs for me. But I can knit while looking after them in the tent.”
After the workshops many of the young girls continue to knit, working on orders as they are requested, then selling the pieces. Most of the work they do goes to others living in the camp – but eventually they’re hoping they may be able to get a microfinance loan and start up their own business, knitting goods for Iraqi Kurdish people around the region.
“Wool is expensive so I can’t just make pieces and hope they sell,” Abdulbaqi explains. “Once someone asks me to, then I make it.” Then she takes a few pieces out of the black plastic bag.
“It’s my first exhibition too,” she says proudly, as she helps Hussein to pin her green and white knitted slippers onto the fence too.
About the author: Sazan Mandalawi has worked as a journalist in Iraqi Kurdistan; she is currently working as a peer educator, helping young people with life skills, for the UNFPA.