Professor Helen Storey recently returned from her fourth trip to Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, where she and her team delivered a new project- LOVECOATS.

Helen started working with those living at camp in 2016 after she was gifted a UNHCR decommissioned refugee tent. From the tent Helen created the ‘Dress For Our Time’, a project which uses the power of fashion to communicate and act upon some of the world’s most complex issues, notably climate change and the mass displacement of people.

Her first meeting with the Za’atari’s camp manager back in 2016 was enlightening – nothing you previously imagined is how things actually are. He spoke of how the refugees have taught them the conditions for dignified living and how the camp is built, day, by day, by the refugees themselves, echoing Helen’s experiences and journey. Working alongside the refugees, projects continue to evolve.

The LOVECOATS project came out of a conversation with the Tiger Girls last year. The self named TIGER Girls, stands for ‘These inspiring girls enjoy reading’ – and began as an initiative by The Open Learning Exchange, based in Cambridge, MA in the USA, as a pilot for innovative refugee education and has been growing ever since.

This group of 1,200 young women and teens are a beacon of light for a larger group of 10,000 young women, in a place where only 20% will complete high school education. Early marriage, increased domestic chores and low paid work, keep many of them from aspiring to an education, or imagining what it may bring them.

LOVECOATS is very much a project designed with them and inspired by their hopes and wishes for the future. They told Helen of their love of fashion , their wish for making skills, and of their wish to be able to gift to others as well as of their fear of the cold winters in the camp. All these things were addressed through this collaborative project and each coat they made was as imaginative and individual as each of the Tiger girls themselves. One of them told Helen:

I believe it is possible to make something out of nothing.

The first day of the project was a workshop where the girls explored their wishes for others – poems were written with textile pens on small pieces of left over tent material and the team engaged the girls in exercises which connected them to their own creativity and the possibility for newly articulated insights in their own hearts and minds.

On day two, the girls cut out the basic coat shape pattern and delved into the small mountain of recycled, clean, second hand clothes from Oxfam; picking colours they felt represented them, patterns, fabrics and shapes that they were drawn to and selected other donated materials such as ribbons, braids, sequins, beads, fringes and embroidered accessories to decorate their coats. At the end of the workshop a small fashion show was organised for the girls to show their creations.

Helen’s aim is to educate and reach out to all the Tiger girls in the camp. The idea is that this first set of 25 girls who participated in the design workshop will go on to act as tutors and mentors to future participants. They will share and pass on their technical knowledge to the other girls, until every girl who needs a coat in camp has one. At the end of the week the girls sat down and told Helen the effect the project had had on them, some of their comments have made the challenges of this kind of work so worth while:

Now I know I am important because I got to make my own coat and I walked on the catwalk. I feel confident

When I took my coat home and showed it to my mother and sister they didn’t believe I had made it!”

I looked at things in the cupboard and realised I can use them for something else, I don’t have to throw them out.”

Helen commented:

We really did go on a huge creative journey with the Tiger Girls, their trust in the project and us brought us very close, standing in that tiny crack of light, between back and front stage, I saw every single one of them step onto the edge of that catwalk, proud, surprised and brave – each in their own way saying “this is me now”.

Originally posted on the Centre for Sustainable Fashion website.