Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 1 October 2020

This is WAAR: the bags that highlight the refugee crisis

For Chadi Chamoun, inviting people to consider the true meaning of refugee is more than a matter of semantics. It'll make us all more emphathetic

A WAAR clutch. Courtesy WAAR
A WAAR clutch. Courtesy WAAR

What is a refugee?

That’s the question that underlies a new initiative by Chadi Chamoun, dean of the College of Design at American University in the Emirates. Making his first official foray into fashion, the architect and academic has created a line of women’s clutch bags called WAAR, or We Are All Refugees.

“According to UNHCR, ‘at least 79.5 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes. Among them are nearly 26 million refugees, around half of whom are under the age of 18’. Although these numbers are technically factual, the frightening fact is that they are much greater if we look at the broader definition of a ‘refugee’,” says Chamoun.

A WAAR clutch. Courtesy WAAR
A WAAR clutch. Courtesy WAAR

“We need to remember that anyone who has left their home for political, social, economic or any other crisis-driven situation that devalues the livelihood of a human, is principally a refugee – regardless of whether they or we are willing to admit it or not. This detachment of place and culture contributes to the refugee crisis today,” he adds.

And so the clutch, a carrier device in condensed form, becomes a symbol of making do with the barest of necessities. WAAR’s utilitarian lines, no-nonsense forms and bold typography invite us all to consider what the term refugee actually means. “A great majority of people are in denial of their refugee condition,” suggests Chamoun.

Many individuals feel that once they reach a certain level of financial or social independence and validation, they shed their refugee skin

“Many individuals feel that once they reach a certain level of financial or social independence and validation, they shed their refugee skin. The biggest misconception is that you are only a refugee if you are poor, have lived in a makeshift shelter and have been helped by an NGO.

"This could not be farther from the truth. To put it plainly, an immigrant is someone who leaves their homeland of their own will, whilst a refugee is someone who is forced to flee their homeland and has little or no say in the situation.”

Chamoun has no qualms about his own refugee status. “My parents and I were forced to leave Lebanon in 1978 and flee to America. It was not a choice and it was not an option. We could either leave or face dire consequences. Our passports were printed, visas issued and we were on a plane to JFK. My parents still like to think of it as immigration, but I can’t digest that. It is one thing that we won’t agree on.

“At the age of 3, NYC became my home. My parents literally had $50 [Dh183] in their pockets. They had to work such a myriad of jobs to keep us afloat that listing them would be a thesis. Amongst the chaos, my father became a successful interior designer in NYC and my mother a phenomenal real estate broker in Queens,” he says.

Chadi Chamoun, dean of the college of design at the American University in the Emirates. Courtesy Chadi Chamoun
Chadi Chamoun, dean of the college of design at the American University in the Emirates. Courtesy Chadi Chamoun

Chamoun had been developing WAAR before the pandemic struck, but now sees parallels between the refugee crisis and Covid-19-related lockdowns and restrictions surrounding movement and travel. “As a result of Covid-19, we have all become ‘refugees’ in our own homes, towns, cities,” he says. “We are all displaced and limited in movement and expression. The world has become a ‘refugee’ camp and we are all the occupants.”

And then, on August 4, disaster struck once again in Lebanon. “In a matter of 20 minutes, over 300,000 people lost their homes and became refugees in their own city.”

Although Chamoun holds a PhD in architectural design from University College London, served for eight years as a faculty member and as chairman at the American University in Dubai before taking on his current role, and has worked on a range of commercial design projects in the Emirates, he realised that, as a creative discipline, fashion could offer a more immediate and wide-reaching way of communicating his message.

A WAAR clutch. Courtesy WAAR
A WAAR clutch. Courtesy WAAR

“Fashion is an unbelievably fast medium of expression that connects to a far greater multitude of people in society. Architecture, interiors and products are not as accessible to all strata in society – they are expressive mediums that do not penetrate as quickly and effectively. A similar medium would be music, with similar penetrative qualities – but I can’t sing.”

Still, Chamoun drew on his architectural background when creating the designs for the clutches, which are made in Dubai and currently available to buy via Instagram. They have a distinctly urban feel, inspired by “the grey patina of concrete, the black street grills that allow underground activities such as subways and tunnels to breathe, the patterns of streets and the patterns of pavement”.

And each bag's message is, at its heart, pretty simple, if maybe difficult to digest for some. “We all – and I mean humanity as a whole – need to come to the realisation that the refugee crisis will spare no one. It doesn’t matter if you're rich or poor, if you’re well-cultivated or a brute, displacement will spare no one – but this is not a bad thing. Our prophets were refugees, being forced to flee from town to town, city to city, and nation to nation.

“Once we realise that we are all in this together, and that we are all susceptible to this, we can start to care and support one another more consciously and effectively,” Chamoun concludes.

Updated: September 14, 2020 07:52 AM

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