Sewing for the Future

A report on how one woman’s love for fashion has brought hope to many.

For Heike Weber, the delicate and colorful stitching of traditional Levantine clothing was love at first sight. “I feel that the embroideries represent a letter from the past that I was eager to read,” says Heike, a German national fascinated with the individual story behind each article of traditional clothing.

Heike wanted to find a clothing business that fuses traditional Levantine styles and embroideries with contemporary fashions.   So in 1988 she founded Anat, which does just that.  But what she didn’t expect was the impact that Anat has had on the lives of many low-income families.

Under the financial auspices of Anat, Heike has created several programs to teach poor and uneducated women in the region the basics of traditional embroidery, giving them the means to develop their creativity while also offering them a steady flow of income. Beginning with just 20 employees,  Anat now employs well over 600.

Heike goes to remote Syrian villages like Jabal al Hoss, located north of Aleppo, teaching residents the secrets of traditional embroidery and giving them a chance to work on her trendy clothes, bags and shoes.   Then she sells the works that they help make.  Some of the works from Jabal Al Hoss, a village known for its poverty, were so special to Heike that she displayed them as art. They were showcased at the German cultural center and in “Ruaa”, a new art gallery in Jaramana. “What struck me most about their works were the vivid colors they used,” Heike says, “even though they live in a very harsh and colorless environment.”

Anat has also gone out of its way to help refugee children.   In 1994, Heike entered a partnership with a school in Norway, in which Norwegian students learning about the history of Palestine spent 10 full days with refugees, learning about their lives, living conditions and heritage, as well as donating money and gifts.   By the end of the program, firm bonds had developed.  “The Palestinian children really liked the Norwegian students a lot,” Heike says. “They felt they had friends to wait for every year.”

With these successes, Heike has taken Anat international. As a volunteer with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), she gave workshops for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which resulted in a fashion show in 1995.  With the help of GTZ, a German -owned company, Anat developed a handicrafts project in Jordan  in 2001. She visited several villages around the country and taught women to make handicrafts, which they then sold to make a living.  The results have had a lasting impact, she believes.  “Some of my students have continued the work after I left Jordan,” she says. “They are even giving courses to help other villagers.”

Heike has also held her own fashion shows in Europe, America, the Far East and the Arab world.  Tourists coming to Syria love stopping by Anat’s store which opened in 2006 near Bab Sharki. Her clothes have even attracted the eye of celebrities: word on the street has it that Asmaa-Al Assad, President Bashar Assad’s wife, has taken a liking to the organization’s fashions.

Despite the accomplishments, Heike has also encountered suspicion among locals.   Some have criticized her efforts to modernize traditional Levantine fashions and said that it distorts their heritage.  But she begs to differ. “I didn’t fundamentally change the traditional clothes,” she explains. “instead I adjusted them in a way that suits our daily lives and attracts young people.”

Regardless of these complaints, the project has been a tremendous success. As a result of Anat’s work in Jabal Al Hoss, for example, residents there were able to make a library with donated books. “The books give these people an opportunity to continue learning after they have finished school,” says Heike , adding that they wouldn’t have had such an opportunity otherwise. The tiny village is also currently collecting money to buy a bus to take the village’s children to their school, which is a long and uncomfortable walk from the village.

In the future, Heike hopes to expand the reach of Anat’s fashions as well as the philanthropic services associated with the business. “I hope to widen the range of our work and to give our knowledge to as many as we can,” she says with a smile. ” I hope that Syrian handicrafts in general become an international trademark that people are proud to wear”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine. Issue no. 26

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