The workshop's headquarters in Cairo’s old district of Garden City was buzzing with activity.
The sounds of sewing machines and voices giving instructions could be heard at the vintage decorated reception hall where I waited to meet with the ladies.
The appointment was scheduled to discuss the collaboration between the International Organisation for Immigration (IOM) – which is affiliated with the UN Migration Agency – and one of Egypt’s most booming names in the field of fashion and design; Mohaned Kojak.
Egypt became a member of the IOM in 1991 after having been an observer state since 1974. The IOM in Cairo has since established relations with migration-related ministries, as well as UN partners and civil society, to help improve the lives of migrants.
The IOM project lasted for one month and had Kojak train a group of talented young ladies, most of whom are Syrian refugees in Cairo. I had the chance to talk to the ladies on the last day of the project about their stories and hopes for the future.
Hard determination in the face of challenges
The fresh face of young Nour lit up as she began to tell me her story.
“My name is Nour and I came from Damascus about six years ago at the start of the Syrian crisis. At that time it was obvious for my family and I that a much safer future lay ahead in Egypt, and the doors were wide open; we were, and still are, very much welcomed. One year ago I finished a diploma in fashion, and design remains my prime passion together with the volunteer work I do with several NGO’s that help with refugee integration and start-ups in the community," Nour said.
The determined young lady smiled as she said that she dreams of having her own brand in the future.
Another young woman, Khawla, talked with a serene voice about moving with her husband, four children, and grandson to Egypt in 2013.
“It was a decision we took after things looked grim back in Damascus where we used to live, and Egypt held a prospect of hope and a better future for the young ones," she said.
“At the beginning ,adjusting was difficult, but it did not take a long time; after all, Syria and Egypt were once unified as one country, and it is difficult to feel homesick in Egypt for a long time,” she recalled.
Khawla, who excels most at embroidery, smiled and said that although missing family back home is difficult, she and her family are now in a good place.
Hanoov had a different story.
The mother of two – whose name in classical Arabic means the most beautiful of the deer – recounted that she moved from Idlib after her home and that of her parents were bombed, many members of the family were killed in the incident, leaving her no choice but to flee the country.
Her husband returned to Syria after a year to finalise work-related issues, and has been missing for five years now.
“Our first stop was Turkey, but then we moved to Egypt where we could relate with the people and language more," she said.
“I have been working since I left my home country, and sewing was one of the main jobs I concentrated on, along with working with the Red Crescent organisation to teach others how to make clothes,” she said
Hasnaa from Cairo and Lamia from Kafr El-Sheikh, the two Egyptian girls in the group, explained that part of the prerequisites of the IOM was that the project involve both refugees and people from the host country.
The five young ladies, who had learned about the initiative from NGOs or social media platforms, hope to see their work thrive independently.
Social impact through inclusion
Kojak explained that having a social impact has always been in the back of his mind, even sending messages along those lines through themes and ideas in his collections.
Kojak talks to AO (Photo: Ingy Deif)
“But it was not enough. So for a whole year I have been trying to help out with the IOM, until the idea of the workshop manifested itself," Kojak said.
Although Kojak is still in his early 20s, his name has been linked to gowns and designs worn by famous celebrities on the red carpet in Egypt and all over the Arab world.
“Exposure does wonders, and people need to be exposed to different segments of society like the young Syrian talents here. Exposure dispels fear and induces acceptance and understanding of the other," he said.
“The skills of people complement each other, and the mix between Egyptians and Syrians and the amazing collaboration between the two was a huge validation of the concept.”
“The whole idea is not to force concepts of aesthetics on the ladies, but rather help them think from multiple angles, and have more ways of seeing fashion. The aim was just to expose the girls to more aesthetics and make use of their abilities and talents to make trendier projects that they can sell at a higher price rate, even with their limited resources,” he explained.
Kojak added that the workshop has produced a 'gypsy' themed collection, using materials that can be accessed by the participants in the future.
“Haute Couture is expensive and demanding, and for their work to continue and develop later, we needed to concentrate on mastering the idea of fully utilising the available materials and producing creatively with what can be accessible," Kojak said.
"When you observe the before-and-after of their products , you can clearly see a wider vision and a different aesthetic that focuses more on detail rather than the fabric itself."
The young designer tells Ahram Online that he sees beauty in everything around us in nature, even if it is outside the conventional, adding that telling untold stories of such stills of nature or of different people is what constantly inspires him.
Kojak says that this manifests itself in the initiative of collaborating with the young girls and refugees to bring out their previously unseen talents, helping them to ultimately pave their own way, style and aesthetic.