In a discreet pale yellow five-story building in Istanbul’s residential Capa district, 45 women gather weekly to make clothing and accessories created around the themes of tradition and culture. They fashion beaded loom bracelets, tie modern tassel necklaces, and weave pastel Hawaa purses. In the sewing room, others stitch silk kaftans and kimonos from designs tacked to the wall.
They are just a handful of the 560,000 Syrian refugees currently registered in Istanbul. As they try to make a new home here, they are confronted with challenges like isolation, not knowing the Turkish language, and struggling with financial insecurity.
Which is why The Intrepid Foundation partnered with Small Projects Istanbul, an independent NGO operating a community centre supporting displaced Syrian families. Together, they’re helping Syrian women develop the skills to launch their own fashion brand, Muhra. Yet Muhra is more than a fashion brand — it’s a social enterprise that uplifts Syrian women with economic empowerment and a supportive community. And through Intrepid, travellers visiting Istanbul have a unique opportunity to connect and engage with this special place. Here’s an inside look at how it works.
They learn new skills
Most of the women who comprise Muhra were housewives in Syria before coming to Istanbul, which means this is their first time in a professional work environment. That’s a big shift to navigate, so they start by learning manageable skills like sewing and fabric dying. To learn these skills, Small Projects Istanbul leads classes guided by experts in their craft, which they supplement by teaching themselves and learning from YouTube videos. The goal, though, is to grow beyond a set of manual skills to have longevity, quality work, and empowerment.
They teach each other
As they gain more experience and expertise, they are able to move up the ranks to higher positions like product line managers and technical skills leaders, and as new women join Small Projects Istanbul, the ones with more experience teach the newcomers. This fosters a supportive and productive community that the Syrian women would not otherwise be able to find as new residents in a foreign country with few opportunities to engage, little to no work experience, and scant resources.
A 40-year-old woman named Marwa is just one example of how they’re able to teach other: her grandmother taught her how to crochet when she was young. When the crisis in Syria flared up, she started crocheting blankets for her daughters and neighbours. Now she helps teach the other women at Small Projects Istanbul how to crochet and, as a result, each product retains a piece of her history.
“Now, when I say something, I know it can be done. I achieved something personal for myself,” says Marwa.
They produce quality products
In order to run their own business, it’s important that the products they make be high-quality and consistent. That quality and consistency comes from their new skills, determination, and developing their quality control system, but it also comes from creating products they are personally connected to.
“I feel like I am proving myself. Each piece I make is a reflection of me,” Marwa says.
In the jewellery workshop, women circle around a table and hand coil brass, then layer them with colourful Turkish cotton to create beautiful drop earrings (the tagline is ‘Drop earrings, not bombs’). In the dying room, they colour shawls reminiscent of the ones they wore at home in Syria and print patterns of Arabic cultural figures on t-shirts.
They are not just making the products, but are involved in the entire process themselves, from vision-boarding to creating, and producing to distribution, so their products reflect the identity of their creators.
They collaborate and find community
But the space offers something more than simply a workshop where they make their product.
“It’s not just work, but a place where I come to take a break from harder things in life and to meet new friends,” Marwa says. “Life would be much harder in Istanbul without this. I would stay home alone, and it would be difficult to meet other people without this centre”
Many women and families who have been displaced from their home find being in a foreign place isolating and cold. Here, they have a place outside of their house to socialise, relax, and connect with other women in similar circumstances.
While they work, Small Projects Istanbul provides free on-site childcare services. And when they aren’t working, there are language classes and other services available to help them integrate into Istanbul’s culture.
They achieve economic empowerment
Ranya, 40, who moved to Istanbul from Damascus with her husband and four children, says that unlike her home country, living in Istanbul requires a dual income. Here, she and the other women can earn money to help support their families through selling Muhra’s products. Most women work from 2-3 days a week, for 4-6 hours a day, and earn up to 550 Turkish Lira per month (around 125 Australian dollars), significantly helping their financial situation.
Ranya says this experience gives her more than money. “I learned that I could depend on myself.”
“In Syria, we had strength, but we couldn’t see it. Here, we see it.”
You can help
As more families continue to flee Syria, there will be more women who need support.
The Muhra Store is an online marketplace they use to internationally distribute the beautiful collections they make. You can easily shop for handmade earrings, bracelets, and clothing on the website — and they make great gifts!
Intrepid also offers a unique way to get involved: Join the Urban Adventures In Focus Tour – The Olive Tree of Istanbul and spend the evening talking with some of the volunteers involved, seeing the community space and social enterprise, enjoying a Syrian meal. All new proceeds support Small Projects Istanbul.
Donations are also critical to the quality and success of the program, so you can help support with a simple direct donation too. The Intrepid Foundation will match it, and 100% will go directly to Small Projects Istanbul.