The designer who empowers refugee women in Lebanon

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Written by Harriet Kean, CNN

On August 2, 2020, Larissa von Planta packed her life together in Beirut, where she had worked as a sustainable fashion designer for five years. Beirut’s economic situation had worsened since she arrived in 2015, and many of her friends left the city. After Planta’s mother passed away in May of that year, she felt compelled to return to London.

Two days after Planta returned home, the devastating explosion that destroyed downtown Beirut was reported. The massive explosion, which was reportedly caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in a warehouse in the port of Beirut, killed more than 200 people and caused colossal damage to the city’s infrastructure.

“A friend of mine wrote to me and asked if I saw what was happening in Beirut,” said the 27-year-old from Planta during a telephone interview. “I went on google and a few seconds later saw the burning port and then the explosion. I couldn’t even register what that meant – I thought Beirut was going to be completely flattened.

Feeling powerless in London, Von Planta set up a Go Fund Me Page (which raised £ 30,000 ($ 42,000) for repairs, friends and victims on the ground). He reached out to Meike Ziervogel, the executive director of a local nonprofit called Alsama Project that runs women’s empowerment programs. Von Planta had previously worked with Ziervogel and worked with one of the Alsama project branches, Alsama Studios.

An example of one of the embroidered pieces. Recognition: Alasidair Harriss

Alsama Studios are run by Fatima Khalifa, who fled Syria with her children in 2012. She offers embroidery for Syrian and Palestinian refugee women. The studio works in one of the Lebanese refugee camps, Bourj al-Barajneh, where Khalifa and the other stickers live.

According to Khalifa, the refugee camp is unsafe – there is gun violence, drugs and the health conditions are “appalling”.

“As a refugee, you have no other choice,” said Ziervogel in a joint video interview with Khalifa. “Many of the refugees come in illegally and live in constant fear of being sent back, especially the young men. The refugee camp is out of the law (in Lebanon) so the government cannot get you while you are in the camp.”

“I wanted to offer these women work,” said von Planta. “I knew from Meike that the stickers had gone into a great depression. They live such a precarious lifestyle; they are not Lebanese citizens, so there is great instability. They cannot return to their countries. I wanted to make sure that they work. ” came in so they had one less thing to worry about. ”

While some of the stickers work briefly, others have the full creative license to express themselves.

While some of the stickers work briefly, others have the full creative license to express themselves. Recognition: Alasidair Harriss

“Before the explosion, there was hope that the (economic) situation would improve,” added Zoiervogel. “But when we saw how the politicians dealt with the explosion – or not – we realized that the country was going to slide even further down. It was a big shock to the women and Khalifa.”

“We needed a simple idea,” said von Planta, who trained at Central Saint Martins, a prestigious fashion and creative university in London. “We didn’t want to do anything new. We just asked our friends to send clothes to be embroidered.” When von Planta returned to Lebanon on August 20, she brought 30 items of clothing – from denim jackets to caftans – that were embroidered by the women at Alsama Studios.

Some people asked for specific colors, while others preferred the element of surprise and gave no instructions. “The stickers loved it because some people came up with colors that they never thought would go together.”

“The most exciting part is working together,” said Khalifa. “Larissa is a very impressive designer, so she comes up with her ideas, then the women bring their designs and the customers too. This is how they create unique pieces.”

The initiative offers stickers a sustainable livelihood.

The initiative offers stickers a sustainable livelihood. Recognition: Larissa from Planta

The 30 pieces with elaborate embroidery and Syrian or Palestinian motifs were returned within three months. “The motifs are very site-specific and are influenced by agriculture and the environment,” explained von Planta. “Each motif represents something; there are plants, stars, and an eerie one that represents barbed wire and how things have changed.”

The upcycling initiative was so successful that von Planta and Khalifa continued to work together and created the LVP x Alasma Studios project. Now 200 pieces have been embroidered by the refugee women, with the money being used for workers’ wages and various business expenses.

The 35 stickers like to see photos of customers wearing their upcycled clothing. “Suddenly seeing the garment in the outside world after working on it for 10 days in the camp is almost more valuable than the money,” said Khalifa. “It is valuable to see this support.”

“There is a real closeness between the customer and these women in Beirut who lead a completely different life,” said von Planta. “You only influence them by sending a piece.” Some of the refugee women send personalized notes in Arabic along with the clothes.

The artisans work with cotton, linen, silk or denim to create unique pieces, as modeled here.

The artisans work with cotton, linen, silk or denim to create unique pieces, as modeled here. Recognition: Alasidair Harriss

The Alasama Studios are an oasis for Khalifa and her sticker team. “Alsama is a place of safety,” said Khalifa. “The women can come and talk about things they can’t talk about in their homes.”

Khalifa recruits women who want to “improve themselves” and give back to their community. “Many of the women have lived with depression for many years,” she said, who said she fell into a deep depression when she arrived at the refugee camp. She had no electricity or light and could not afford to send her three boys to school.

“Most women, including me, lost family members or left families behind in the war,” said Khalifa. “Alsama is a surrogate family and gives women strength so that they can inspire the next generation, their children, to one day leave the camp.”

“The LVP x Alasama project has given the studio hope that the situation (in Beirut) can improve,” she added. “It’s not just about income – (the project) has given the women psychological support.”

The next item of clothing will be dispatched on July 1st, but collections are also made throughout the year. For more information, please visit www.larissavonplanta.com/alsama



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