A Japanese archaeologist who spent 21 years in Syria is now supporting Syrian women who have lost their livelihoods -- and in many cases homes and family members -- in the ongoing civil war by supplying them with needles and thread, and buying and selling the traditional embroidery they make.
It was in 1989 that archaeologist Yayoi Yamazaki, 57, now a Tokyo resident, went to Syria to conduct research on the Euphrates valley. She became a lecturer at a university in the northwestern city of Aleppo, and married and lived with a local archaeologist. During a visit to Japan in 2010, however, tensions escalated in Syria, preventing Yamazaki from going back. In 2012, her husband passed away due to illness.
In the spring of 2013, Yamazaki, along with a friend in Tokyo, launched Ibra Wa Khayt, Arabic for "needle and thread." With the help of friends in both Syria and Turkey, Yamazaki sends supplies and equipment to women in Syria for free, then pays for the embroidery the women produce, which is sent to her home in Tokyo. The embroidery is then sewed onto bags or used to make buttons, and offered for sale.
Around 40 women in the Syrian capital of Damascus and in Turkey, where many Syrians have evacuated, have been involved with the project thus far. Of those women, two have died as a result of airstrikes, and many have lost their husbands and children.
Yamazaki says she was moved by a letter she received from one of the Syrian women, who said she was determined to continue her embroidery work with the Ibra Wa Khayt project no matter what. "Whatever the circumstances, I never flee without my needles and thread," the woman had written.
The massive influx of Syrian refugees into Europe has been making headlines in recent weeks, but the truth is that many women are stuck in Syria, unable to scrape together the money to make the expensive journey. Yamazaki says that's one of the motivations for the project. "I hope the women are able to carve out a new future for themselves with the embroidery skills they're cultivating."
The products currently on sale include buttons (500 yen each) and small framed embroidery (1,500 to 2,000 yen each), with motifs such as flowers and mosques, as well as words such as "peace." They are available on the Ibra Wa Khayt Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Iburawahaito/; at the Ancient Orient Museum in Tokyo's Toshima Ward; the National Museum of Ethnology in Suita, Osaka Prefecture; and the Okayama Orient Museum in Okayama.