Natural beauty: rebuilding identities in Za’atari

Storey and students at one of the short beauty courses provided by London College of Fashion in the Za’atari Camp. Picture: LCF.

Storey and students at one of the short beauty courses provided by London College of Fashion in the Za’atari Camp. Picture: LCF.

The third incarnation of Dress for Our Time could be its most powerful yet: working directly with the people of the Za’atari refugee camp.

In 2015, social artist Professor Helen Storey launched an extraordinary campaign: using the various vehicles of fashion and design, passion and politics, Dress For Our Time was a document highlighting the plight of a planet in thrall to climactic changes (read more here).

By 2016, the project had evolved. The Dress, made from a decommissioned UN refugee tent, became the canvas for a tragic set of figures: UNHCR data showing the number and location of displaced people around the globe, in which lights, each representing one hundred human lives on the move, were projected onto the dress itself. 

It was not a map of the world but a map of people fleeing for life and where they eventually arrived at.

From its exhibition at the Science Museum to its place on the Pyramid stage at the opening of Glastonbury 2016 to its stately progress through City Hall for the inaugural London Peace Talks, the dress is variously a reflection, a call-to-action and a reminder of the human side of the refugee crisis and of the importance of all human life.

Dress For Our Time at The London Peace Talks. Picture: Helen Storey.

Dress For Our Time at The London Peace Talks. Picture: Helen Storey.

But its third incarnation could be its most powerful yet, with the team behind it working directly with the people of the Za’atari refugee camp. ‘Two things inspired me to go,’  recalls Storey. ‘The first was that, in doing the research, I realised that the link between climate change and migration is very strong and set only to increase, yet not many people are speaking of it. The second was a deep interest into where the tent had come from and the life story of the people who had been living in it.”

First opened in 2012 to host Syrians fleeing from civil war, Za’atari covers over 5.2 square kilometres, providing shelter to some 85,000 people, 78 per cent of whom are women and children. Already Jordan’s fourth largest city, it shows all the signs of becoming permanent. The initial single zone has multiplied into 12 separate districts. There are 3,500 pop up shops, gathered, in part, along a street called the Champs Elysee. Every night, 35,000 loaves of bread are baked in Za’atari; every week, 20 weddings take place.

For Storey, developing projects for the camp’s inhabitants has been intuitive and organic. “Initially, [it was] very deep listening, no matter what it is you’re hearing, trying to understand what their hopes and wishes are for the future – and then creating work or projects out of that, tackling real life problems on the ground.

“It’s not about going over with a project in mind. It’s going over to find out what the need is and responding to it,” she says. “I’ve got very attached to a lot of the women there. A bond of trust has grown quite quickly, and they often say ‘You come here and you actually listen to us.’”

And what Storey heard was a deep need to re-engage with parts of themselves lost in the diaspora. “On my first visit, I went into a caravan full of women who had their backs to us when we walked in. They turned round and it was quite a surprising sight, because they were clearly using make up from the 1970s. It was like greasepaint. They’d whitened themselves up and covered up their natural beauty but, within that, I could tell something a lot deeper was going on. There was bonding in that space, friendships were being formed. There was a quiet celebration of their femaleness, joy even.”

So, reporting back all the potential to Frances Corner, Head of London College of Fashion, a series of accredited University short beauty courses were delivered on the next trip to the camp.

Today, forty women are ready to set up their own small businesses, relaying what they’ve learnt to friends and family. “It’s given them new skills and something that feels like future.”

Meet a (future) engineer, lawyer, doctor and maths teacher: the TIGER girls at Za’atari Camp. Picture: Helen Storey.

Meet a (future) engineer, lawyer, doctor and maths teacher: the TIGER girls at Za’atari Camp. Picture: Helen Storey.

In another project, #LoveCoats, Storey works with a team of young girls aged between 8 and 16 who call themselves the Tiger Girls, short for Inspiring Girls Who Enjoy Reading, an acronym the girls came up with themselves.

“I had a conversation with the girls in November and three themes seemed to surface,” says Storey. ”The first was that they come from a culture in which gifting is very spontaneous and an important part of how they relate and they had nothing to gift. The second one is the absolute joy and love of fashion and a wish to have skills to make their own clothes. The third is an abject horror of winter, which is very harsh there.”

To answer those themes, Storey and her team collaborated with NRS, a global supplier of humanitarian equipment, who’d donated a thousand metres of thermal blankets. Together with the rest of Oxfam’s onsite textile mountain, the team are working with the girls to create coats, inspired by their own identity, which at night can double as blankets.

Everything left over can be crafted into gifts for friends and family. The #LoveCoats project will be delivered to the girls early July, during the team’s fifth trip to the camp.

The resilience, energy and determination of the camp’s inhabitants are a source of inspiration. “There’s something about trauma that renders everybody tragically equal,” says Storey. “War does that. So what we experience, on the one hand, is a tangible atmosphere of collective heartbreak but, on the other, an extraordinary sense of a fight for a decent life and a cry to rebuild, to heal.”

On discovering a bank of surplus bicycles, for example, Storey’s Sheffield university collaborator, Tony Ryan, suggested projects in which the bikes could be turned into transport for women and children; virtually by the time the team had returned to the UK, the young men in the camp had set up what could perhaps be best described as the Zaat’ari Uber service.

“Plant a seed and turn your back and they will do it,” laughs Storey. “Syrians are the most entrepreneurial people on earth. They’re very very hard workers and that ethic comes with them just as much as their faith and the longing for home.”

But it’s the camp’s youngest inhabitants who move Storey the most. “The most amazing people in the camp are the ones who have been born there and are now six years old. They don’t know anything but the camp, they have no sense of what they have lost, so they are born naturally into frugality, into being inventive and enterprising and loving and joyful. That youngest generation will grow into perhaps the people we should now be, another type of evolved human species.”

Two sets of statistics keep driving Storey forward. “Legal resettlement can take up to 25 years, and less than 2 per cent of refugees are ever resettled. So this neurosis we all have of having a swarm of people descent upon us is just ridiculous. Because none of them really want to be here, as would be the case for us. They just want to go home – and that’s a very strong motivation to try and improve their lives as much as possible, until the day that they can arrives.”

It’s a narrative that is set to become more familiar.“One in every 113 people on the planet is a now either a refugee, a migrant or asylum seeker so actually it’s the new normal. We are a species on the move. Climate change is going to force that even more, so why not take this as an opportunity to find solutions now, before climate change escalates the numbers of us who have to flee?”

“My contribution is small – and it’s going to take all of us to do something. We need to normalise what feels like drastic change and not make it something to be frightened of. We’re slowly (rightly) working our way into a borderless and reciprocal world, where definitions of profit, identity and power need reimagining. Those that feel compelled to cling ontoborders are resisting reality; being surrounded by water is no excuse to ignore the future.”

Find out more:

Twitter: @ProfHelenStorey and @ZaatariCamp