Back in the US, I had a virtual shop on Etsy for years. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I suggest you take a hop on over to Etsy.com right now and find out. Etsy is a website that only sells vintage or handmade items, and anyone can sign up to buy or sell. But it’s much more than just that. It’s a wonderful, supportive online community of creative folks.
Here in Turkey, I’ve been wanting to start up a new Etsy shop for a while. First I was thinking I’d sell my own products as a way to earn some extra money, but through the months spent volunteering with Syrian refugees I’ve been wanting to do something more. Many of the families we interact with have sewing or knitting skills and are talented craftspeople. A lot of Syrians in Izmir are employed in tailor’s shops, often for long hours and little pay, but many don’t have jobs and are struggling to support their families.
I’ve partnered with a few other groups that work to support refugees to create the Refugee Products shop on Etsy! Currently the shop is stocked with leather goods, knit items and a few handmade sundresses.
The leather goods come from Deri’Da, a leather workshop run by Chris and Baran, two people we’ve met through volunteering. Baran is a talented artisan and teacher who has been giving leather-working classes at Kapilar, an open community space here in Izmir. Recently they’ve acquired their own space and are raising money towards hiring two Syrian teenagers as apprentices. Exploitation of young Syrian workers is unfortunately something that happens here, so this is a great opportunity for them. At Deri’Da, they will work less hours for more pay and receive skill training, plus Deri’Da will make sure they are enrolled in school in the fall to continue their educations.
We went to the shop to pick a few items for the website, and it was hard to choose! They’ve produced so many beautiful things. Also, I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the workshop. It reminded me of working in costume shops: good music playing, people in the zone creating things, and positive energy all around. I can see myself going there in the future, just to relax and sew!
The knitted items come from ReVi, the Refugee Volunteers of Izmir. We began volunteering with them in February and the group really become a large part of my life. There are several families that we work with where one or more of the women are good with knitting and crocheting, and have been making things for our volunteers. It’s a great situation: we purchase yarn for them and drop it off at their houses. They are free to work in their homes on their time, and then we return and pay them for the finished products. This is great for women with many mouths to feed who may not have the freedom to leave their homes and go out to work.
I had always known about the knitting families and their skills, so it was clear to me that I needed to include them in the Etsy shop. Felipe, the leader of the group, told me that he had a lot of finished products at his house that I could take a look at. After a few weeks of trying to connect, we headed over there to check it out.
Little did I know exactly how much stuff he was talking about! In Felipe’s living room, in a media cabinet where a normal person may have books or DVDs, lie orderly stacks of clear plastic bags containing various items. Every knitted thing you could think of is there: socks, slippers, mittens, neckwarmers, purses, toys, pillows, and LOTS of baby clothes. There were even some weird items, like a set of three knitted mushrooms. I pawed through the lot of it and selected what I thought were the best items to sell – including the mushrooms!
The dresses we commissioned from a Syrian woman who has been making clothes for her neighbors and other volunteers for some time now. I got the idea from another volunteer, who’d made a prototype by sewing a simple tank top to pleated fabric. It was a great idea, but needed better fabric and someone who was accustomed to making dresses.
In Turkey, where do you go when you need something? The bazaar, of course! The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul may be the most famous, but the Kemeraltı Bazaar in Izmir is the largest in Turkey, with crowded, winding streets and seemingly endless shops selling everything from spices to clothes to housewares. I knew of one fabric shop, on a main street, but they didn’t have what I was looking for. So we trudged deeper into the bazaar, and managed to find the fabric area, where a tiny shop had some beautiful fabric that was exactly what I wanted: cloth that was flowy with eye-catching summer prints. After a bit more searching we found some soft tank tops as well. Note to others looking for tank tops in a Turkish bazaar: you will not find them with the t-shirts or other clothing items. You will find them tucked away in the corners of the lingerie shops!
We took the fabric and prototypes to the woman, who lives high on a hill in Basmane. We explained what we wanted and she said it would be easy for her to do. A week later, we returned, and found that the dresses were beautifully made and fit well. By this visit, I had been to this woman’s house a handful of times over the past few months. This time, I noticed that there was fresh paint on the walls and the carpets were clean. The first time I had visited, the paint had been chipped, peeling, and graffitied by children’s scribbling. The carpet had been stained, the sofa had been shabby. In just a few month’s from the extra income she has brought in from her sewing, the family has been able to really improve their home and quality of living. It’s especially important for them to be able to put away extra right now, as she is 8 months pregnant.
Once we had acquired all of the items, the next step was to take some good photos for the website. We got our friends Nusaybe and Ayşe, two lovely girls who are both Syrian refugees themselves as well as volunteers, to model. I did their makeup and we had a lot of fun. They really got into it! The website also features beautiful drawings from our friend Sun-Ah, a remarkable artist.
The shop went live two days ago, and we’ve already had a few orders! Please go and take a look around. I’m quite proud of it. Many of you reading this are friends who have asked before how you can help support the people that we are serving over here. This is how. Your purchase of these products directly helps these people, mostly women, and their families. Women with income, supporting themselves and their families, boosting self-confidence and independence, is a beautiful thing.
Click right here to visit the shop!