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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Healing the hurt in Syria one stitch at a time

We talk to the Syrian sisters using hand-embroidered dolls to share the dreams and stories of war-torn children and their families

Syrian children play next to a destroyed building in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus. Abd Doumany / AFP
Syrian children play next to a destroyed building in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus. Abd Doumany / AFP

Last year, as Mother’s Day approached, Marianne and Melina Moussalli began thinking about motherhood.

The children of a Lebanese father and Syrian mother, the sisters were raised in Syria and moved to Lebanon to attend university, Marianne in 2003 and Melina in 2005. When they thought about what it means to be a mother, they found their thoughts turning to the Syrian women struggling to raise their children amid the horrors of war. The pair decided that for Mother’s Day they would create a line of hand-embroidered dolls, each representing a different Syrian woman’s story.

Sitting in their cosy workshop in Beirut, a space named L’Atelier where they run arts and craft workshops for children, the sisters explain how the Ana Collection has evolved from a temporary venture into a business that helps to support hundreds of displaced Syrian families.

“My aunt still lives in Aleppo. She didn’t want to leave during the war, she wanted to help displaced refugees inside Syria,” says Marianne. “We called her and we asked her to send us stories of refugees in Aleppo.”

The Ana Collection of dolls is aimed at helping to raise awareness and funds for displaced Syrians in Aleppo. Courtesy Marianne and Melina Moussalli
The Ana Collection of dolls is aimed at helping to raise awareness and funds for displaced Syrians in Aleppo. Courtesy Marianne and Melina Moussalli

Their aunt, who wishes to maintain her anonymity for security reasons, is part of an informal network of charities within Aleppo

run by volunteers who provide food, clothes, money and emergency housing to internally displaced Syrians from all backgrounds. Together, they provide support to around 800 families each month.

The stories their aunt shared with the Moussalli sisters inspired the first 33 of what are now dozens of dolls. Entitled, “Ana”, which means “I am”, the collection helps to share the stories of displaced women and their families through simple, colourful embroidered images that encapsulate the difficulties they have weathered and the hopes and dreams that keep them going. The sisters soon realised that many of the women were driven by the optimism and resilience of their children, who became the focus of the dolls.

“Some of them have seen things that no other child has seen, but the power of a child’s imagination and positivity is just so amazing, and this is what we try to portray though these dolls and these colours and the way we write the story,” says Marianne.

Each doll consists of a simple white form resembling a bowling pin, stuffed with recycled paper and embroidered with beautiful designs. The story is conveyed through simple, colourful illustrations, ringed with abstract patterns that encircled the doll’s body and face.

Marianne and Melina Moussalli were inspire d by their aunt, who still lives in Aleppo. Courtesy Ana Collection
Marianne and Melina Moussalli were inspire d by their aunt, who still lives in Aleppo. Courtesy Ana Collection

Because each doll is embroidered by hand, they are all unique. Although they are based on a pattern, each one bears traces of the woman who worked on it, particularly in the faces.

Each doll is named for the women whose story it represents. “Each doll has a little card in the back to tell her story and the dream of her child,” explains Marianne. “Every tag says, ‘I protect my children’s dreams’.”

Some of the stories are tragic, showing how years of conflict have divided families and affected children.

For instance, Falak’s house was destroyed in the war and her older sons have travelled to Europe by boat, braving the treacherous seas. Every time she speaks about one day following them, her youngest daughter Amal, aged 7, says she is too scared of the sea and the big fish that live in it. Marianne, who comes up with the illustrations, conveys this story through a beautiful illustration showing a shoal of fish with bright blue scales swimming above lines of red-and-green seaweed.

Other stories are more hopeful. One of the best-selling dolls in the collection shows a boy and a girl holding hands, the boy wearing a suit and a natty red bow tie and the girl in a dress embellished with white beads. The illustration was inspired by the story of Salma, who lives in a dangerous part of Aleppo, and whose husband was killed in the conflict, forcing her older children to seek work in a factory.

“My youngest son Fadi, who is only 5 years old, makes me laugh a lot because he only dreams of getting married,” she says.

Another collection, Stories from the Bekaa, stemmed from a collaboration with the British Embassy to support a fund-raising effort to build schools for Syrian refugees living in the Bekaa Valley, in the east of Lebanon. These include the story of Rajaa, who has been living in Lebanon for three years, and her son Alaa, who dreams of becoming an astronaut.

An 82-year-old woman from Shatila is one of the charity's best embroiderers. Ana Collection
An 82-year-old woman from Shatila is one of the charity's best embroiderers. Ana Collection

Last Christmas, the sisters created a special series called The Holiday Collection, based on the answers given by Syrian children who were asked what they would like as a present.

One is heartbreaking. Nivine’s nephew Mohamad, who was orphaned when both his parents were killed, wants a house to live in with a mother and father.

Others are more cheerful, however. Khou-loud’s son Amer wants a big red truck that works on batteries, Maguy’s daughter Cynthia wants a guitar and Mariam’s son Abed wants a tiger for a friend.

The universality of these childish desires is part of what makes the Ana Collection so poignant and powerful.

Each story is unique, but together, they reveal a shared longing for a return to normality and the small pleasures of a life free from violence and war.

“A lot of people buy them for their children to explain about the war,” says Marianne. “For example, one doll belongs to Amal, who has a daughter called Noura. She has a crown and she wears it at home and walks around and calls herself Princess Noura. Parents use dolls like this to explain the war in a way that’s relatable … ‘There’s a girl who’s your age, she’s five, and this is her story’ – it makes it all more relatable for kids.”

In addition to raising awareness about the plight of displaced Syrians, the dolls also provide work and support for hundreds of refugees. The dolls are embroidered in Lebanon by women living in the Palestinian camp of Shatila, through a workshop run by NGO Basmeh & Zeitooneh.

“I think around 200 women have worked at some point or other on our dolls,” explains Marianne. “Our embroidery is pretty basic, so a lot of the women have taught their friends, nieces and daughters at the camp, because

they really like working on it. It’s easy embroidery, it has a meaning behind it, and they know that they are helping others, as well as their own families.”

A fraction of the proceeds goes back to the business to help cover costs and the rest goes to the women who have shared their stories. Some dolls sell better than others, so to make it fair, the sisters divide the profits evenly between all the women and donate some to their aunt to help the hundreds of other displaced Syrians she works with in Aleppo.

The full-size dolls, which are roughly 30cm tall, cost US$65 (Dh238). A selection of small ones, each the size of a hand, start at $35.

The success of the dolls has taken the sisters by surprise. They are now stocked by stores in Lebanon, Kuwait, Dubai and Australia, and can be ordered directly from the website and shipped all over the world.

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In early December, the sisters are due to launch a new collection, entitled The Journey, based on the stories of five families who are leaving Syria to resettle overseas.

For this series, each story will be illustrated across three smaller dolls: a mother, a father and a child.

“The stories also came through my aunt, about these are families that are leaving Aleppo to settle abroad,” explains Marianne. “Two of them have not left yet, they are getting their papers ready, and three other families have already moved.”

The families have been granted resettlement in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Holland and Greece. The dolls bear stories of the children’s hopes for a new life and aim to draw attention to the difficulties faced by refugees even after they settle somewhere safe.

Naim and Rania are planning to move to Argentina with their son Jujus. “We were told that there are a lot of jungles. My son imagines that there will be exotic animals everywhere. We simply want him to be safe and to have a childhood like any other child,” they explain. The dolls that accompany their tale bear images of the exotic animals their son dreams of encountering, including a colourful toucan and a friendly looking crocodile.

“This whole collection is about raising awareness of what some families have to go through to ensure their children’s future. It’s hard for them. They’re going to a country where they don’t know the language, they don’t know the culture,” says Marianne.

“Some of these families have never left Syria in their lives, and to move all the way to Australia must be really hard.”

Go to to www.theanacollection.org