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Helen Storey meets LCF Student Mona Rathi - A conversation about the power of making in a refugee camp

helen and mona rathi chatting
helen and mona rathi chatting
Helen Storey and Mona Rathi
Written by
Jesse Tilley
Published date
06 January 2020

Helen Storey MBE, Centre for Sustainable Fashion, has been working in collaboration with UNHCR Jordan as the first UNHCR Artist in Residence at Zaatari Refugee Camp as of 2019. Helen founded Dress for Our Time, which was created out of a decommissioned refugee tent and has since then been made into a dress and travelled the world as a piece of fashion activism, communicating the world's complex refugee crisis and its relationship to climate change. During her time in Zaatari, Helen met a Syrian refugee named Tarek and they have been working together to craft intricate artworks which have been showcased in an exhibition at House of Hatton in Hatton Garden, London.

Helen's experience in Zaatari came as inspiration to LCF student, Mona Rathi, who herself has volunteered teaching crafts to Syrian refugees in Asraq camp. The pair met in light of the exhibition to share their experiences and discuss ways of encouraging more people to volunteer for change.

Hi Helen and Mona! Thank you so much for getting together today. What has been the most challenging and the most enjoyable parts of working in a refugee camp?

Helen: The most challenging is how to stay in a relationship with suffering over a long period of time. But, at the same time, I’ve also seen moments of joy. Learning how to be there and becoming increasingly aware of what it means to live there, and trying to see life through their eyes, not through my own. What I’ve learned by going there for three years now, is to listen and co-create projects directly from their own needs, so that it’s useful and the impact can last longer after you’re not being there anymore. Parachuting in and out, is kind of like giving someone hope and then taking it away, so by understanding the system, with all its complexities and difficulties, and basing your project on the wishes and needs of the people, it means that you have a reason to be there.

Mona: I completely agree with Helen. When I went to Jordan, I didn’t speak Arabic, I only knew a few words, but somehow, I felt I was more and more connected to the place and the people every day, and then I had to leave. It was kind of what Helen mentioned, giving them hope and then leaving them behind – I didn’t want to go! Something that was going to be a summer project for me became so much more. Things like this are not meant to be projects, it becomes part of your life because you can’t let it go easily. I know the names of all the women I worked with, the children I played with, the pictures I have on my phone are like precious memories for me.

Helen: I think you’re right, the lines between what’s personal and what’s professional get blurred very easily, and that’s initially through empathy. The learning is very reciprocal, we have as much to learn from them as they have to learn from us. This is extraordinary knowledge exchange.

What do you think has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned during your time at the camp?

Helen: To embrace chaos and uncertainty and befriend it, and to know that when chaos is around it’s usually a sign you’re dealing with shaping the future. If everything you’re doing is under control, it means that it has happened before and there’s no possibility to change it. The refugees I’ve met have a human quality that’s very unknown to us, we slip into language like resilience, but actually to come through what they’ve gone through and still be able to plan a future and work towards a future and have hope – they have a lot to teach us! If we think about climate emergency, for example, the camps of Zaatari and Asraq (where Mona went) they’ve been living in a state of emergency for over nine years, they know what it means to leave on 35litres of water a day, to try to put down roots in a place which isn’t home.

Mona: I went there as a very confident 20-year-old girl thinking ‘I have my knitting skills from uni and I’m going to teach them and make a difference in their lives.’

I didn't realise that they would impact my life, just as much as I've impacted theirs. I appreciate everything I have increasingly more, and I've learnt how to always see the bigger picture.

Knowing what they’ve gone through and where they’re living know, they still carry on with their lives and they have so much knowledge and wisdom to share. Also, the fact that we just call them refugees, like we’ve put this label on them, when they’re actually people who have been put in a camp for no fault of their own, they’re just there because of external circumstances in their lives, which I find extremely upsetting.

Helen: One of the things that I always notice from my experience, is that when we are there we feel very unequal, but there’s one time when it's possible to feels as one, and that’s when we’re making. When you’re actually using your hands, your past disappears and you stop projecting into a future, there’s a stillness, synergy and a circularity in the hand and the brain, that brings you all together in one zone. That’s the power of making, which allows us all to feel equal, just for a short while. There's a lot of bonding there and very often it's a lot more social than we would think.

Mona: That’s so true. When you’re focusing on your art you’re not thinking about anything else. In my case, when we were doing those activities like natural dyeings, we were sitting all together I didn’t feel different to them, I was just happy to be sharing those special moments with them. They give you so much love and they're so welcoming.

Helen, how does it feel for you to hear that there’s a new generation of creators like Mona who are using fashion and making to create positive change?

Helen: Someone like Mona I consider to be a beacon of light, because particularly in the fashion industry, there’s a very low expectation that the industry can deliver anything else than yet more stuff.

But to actually see people who want to apply their skills to better lives, rather than to just create another beautiful thing, is very inspirational. I don’t think there are many 'Mona's', but I’m hoping next year I might find a few more. Also, by sharing my experiences at Zaatari and making them accessible through LCF, maybe the potential for more Mona's might be possible.

Mona: Honestly, I’m just very grateful because lots of people in my class and from my group of friends actually helped me through their donations to get more tools and materials to take with me to the camp. If everyone came together to do similar things, we wouldn’t be in the political or environmental situation we are right now.

Helen: Part of the challenge is that people can’t imagine what it is they can do. Everyone can do something, and you don’t even need to go ‘elsewhere’ to do it. There are refugees here, or other people who are suffering in similar ways, so it doesn’t have to be a full expedition to a faraway country.

Do you think that LCF and any other educational institutions really have the power to encourage people to use their knowledge and skills to make a positive impact in different communities, like the refugee camps?

Helen: Definitely! I think we’re actually capable of inspiring people to work in ways they never thought possible. LCF does this extremely well through the Centre for Sustainable Fashion and the work we’re doing with the Better Lives Unit, also the fact that sustainability is now considered foundational knowledge and not a knowledge of choice. It all supports the idea that the role of the designer isn’t just to create things, they can also spot problems, raise awareness about a situation, and that they can apply their creativity in a number of ways and make direct impact on society as well.

Mona, do you feel like being at LCF somehow encouraged you to use your skills to contribute towards social issues?

Mona: When I first came to London, I was 17 and I wasn’t really interested in sustainability, I didn’t even know what I could do about it. I was a research-based designer from the very beginning of my course, and the more I started reading about the history of the craft and its culture, the more I started getting pushed towards developing a more conscious mindset as a designer.

I feel like if I never came to LCF, I would have never met the right people and reading the right things to be able to become who I am today.

If you think about the people you’ve met through your experiences in the camps, what do you think is the main message that refugees would like us to know from them?

Helen: Many of the people that I’ve met in Zaatari have little expectation of the outside world still listening. Tarek’s exhibition is, in many ways, exceptional, recognising a craft and skill in an environment like Zaatari, putting it in the middle of a capital city like London, is worth as much to Tarek and anyone around him as any money. Part of our role is to keep their voices alive. We’ve been working on a film to encapsulate the work that we’ve done in Zaatari this year, and I realised that no one had asked the people living there ‘What’s the film you want to make?’ so we’ve given the power back to those that live there and asked them that question: What’s the story you want to share with the world?

Mona: I just think they don’t want us to see them as refugees, really. They want to be empowered, they want to be seen as who they really are, individuals who have gone through a terrible situation and now find themselves living in these camps, but it doesn’t mean they’re poor, or homeless, because that’s completely different. So I think what Helen has done, asking them what sort of film they would like the world to see, is the way forward. We need to listen to them and let them speak with their own voice, rather than putting our voices on top of theirs.