Sewing talent helps send family to university

05 July 2010

Damascus, June 2010

The coffee table is inundated with beads, threads, pieces of cloth, needles and thimbles. Lying on the floor around it are balls of coloured yarn. In the middle of it all, 51-year-old Raja Hajja sets to work.

Raja says: "I am very happy, proud and satisfied with what I do, above all because I get something good out of it. Throughout the last few years, this business has enabled me to maintain myself and all of my family."

Raja‘s parents arrived in Syria in 1948 from Lake Tiberias in Palestine, fleeing war and dispossession. They established themselves and raised a family in Yarmouk camp. In 1976, Raja enrolled in a sewing and dressmaking course at the camp‘s social centre.

Move to Ramadan

She never had the chance to practise her new skills because in 1979, she moved with her new husband to Ramadan, a remote Palestine refugee camp on the edge of the Syrian desert, around 70 kilometres from Damascus.

With a rich agriculture-based economy, the olive tree-rich region seemed the perfect place to form a family.

But in the late 1990s, a severe drought hit the region, leaving Raja and most other inhabitants without enough food. Things got worse when Raja‘s husband lost his job.

She says: "My husband was unemployed so I decided to give him a helping hand. I had to think of ways to support my children, especially because I did not want them to leave school. It was then that the idea of taking up my knitting and embroidery knowledge came around.”

Successful microenterprise

In 2002 she started weaving, knitting and embroidering her own designs. First she sold her creations to neighbours in and around Ramadan, but as the new enterprise became more successful she expanded.

Ramadan is one of the most impoverished Palestine refugee camps in Syria, but eight years on, Raja runs a small distribution network that includes several outlets and a team of 15 to help her keep up with demand. She can produce more than 200 products a month, including dresses, shawls, sweaters and even plant hangers.

Combining work as a housewife, mother-of-eight and micro-entrepreneur has not been easy. But through her hard work, Raja was able to fund all her eight children through university and support her ailing husband.

Text and photos by Diego Gomez-Pickering

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