Refugee women, whose lives have been shattered by war, are weaving themselves a better future, thanks to the support of one social enterprise.
But far from the organisations sorting donations or fundraising for supplies (much needed as they are), Love Welcomes is offering the one thing that seems almost intangible in the heart of these camps, where families seem to balance on the edge of survival.
And that’s hope.
The brainchild of US-based enterprise Thistle Farms, which aims to empower women coming out of sex trafficking, prostitution and addiction, Love Welcomes was launched in 2017 with the sole aim of helping refugee women build a better future.
And, today, it has become a pillar of courage for those who once arrived in Greece with little more than a poorly-made life-vest on their backs.
But what really makes this organisation different is that it’s giving women the chance to work – with a real salary.
How? By teaching each woman a set of skills to weave and make welcome mats (as well as other products, as the enterprise grows), made from life jackets found washed up on the local beaches.
Sold online to buyers around the world, this money then goes straight back to those women who weaved the mats themselves, helping them to support their families.
And any proceeds later go towards paying for access to key services for everyone in the camp.
Describing the inspiration behind the project, Love Welcomes CEO Abi Hewitt said: “When we talked to the women, they were desperate to work – so, what we do that is different to anyone else is provide work with a salary for the women.
“We make a big difference to the entire community and that helps to ensure the women’s safety in the camp, because everyone knows that a lot of the benefits that they have access to is because the women are doing this work.”
Yet, as Abi explains, the work means so much more than just a payslip or safety – it’s also about giving meaning to each woman’s life.
She continued: “When we arrived, it was just one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen – and I’ve seen quite a lot. They were just so terribly bored.
“Often, you think it’s the drama of a place that makes it sad, and actually this was eerily quiet – but there was such a lack of hope. People were waking up and they had nothing to do, no sense of a future.”
However, fast-forward to 2019 and Love Welcomes has already begun to make a huge impact.
Now, 34 women have jobs (enabling them to support themselves and their families), 23 have been employed since the beginning of the project and 14 former weavers have been permanently relocated across Europe with employable weaving skills.
Without the project, Abi fears these women, while they may have been relocated, might never have re-built the confidence needed to start a new life in a new home.
She said: “When I take a step back, it’s an absolute pleasure to be able to be involved with this project – I feel really privileged to be able to do it.
“But when you’re in the thick of it, you realise how complex these people’s lives are. Just trying to navigate this project is incredibly complicated and I think any time you start working with refugees, you get a lot of doors slammed in your face or a lot of red tape that you need to cross.”
Abi is optimistic, though, and as changes happen within the camp, she hopes to expand the project to employ more women and continue to collaborate with artists and creatives to share their vital work.
But you can help, too.
To see the full Love Welcomes collection and read more about the project, click here.
Written by Hazel Murray