AOP GOLD! Zaatari Women by Tina Hillier

15 May 2019

Well done Tina Hillier! We are so proud that this fantastic series of yours won Gold at the AOP Awards 2019. Very well deserved.

Here are all the images from the shoot plus the essay to accompany the work.

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Tina travelled to Jordan’s Zaatari Refugee Camp with fashion stylist and writer, Bay Garnett, for a feature on the lives of Syrian women in the camp 7 years after war broke out.

Commissioned by the Saturday Telegraph Magazine and facilitated by Oxfam.

ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP in the north of Jordan is a sprawling home to 80,000 Syrian refugees, many of whom have been there for years. While they ponder their uncertain futures life goes on for the camp’s courageous women, none of whom were able to bring much more than memories when they fled the civil war. In such circumstances, it would be easy to imagine that their appearance would lie forgotten at the bottom of a long list of more pressing needs. But when I was invited by Oxfam to meet the women and see its work in helping improve their confidence and financial independence, I discovered how wrong I was. I met women who dress in proud defiance of their lot – each had her own flair and a distinctive style. How these women express their identity is a matter of pride and a triumph in the face of enormous difficulties – as their stories reveal.

‘MEN GOSSIP A LOT ABOUT WOMEN, ESPECIALLY ABOUT WHAT THEY ARE WEARING – IT’S BECAUSE THEY DON’T HAVE WORK AND ARE BORED’

Laila, 42

Laila used to work as a designer in Damascus, where she ran a wedding-dress shop. A single mother to three daughters, aged 19, 22 and 24, she divorced after her brother- in-law was violent towards her, and her husband failed to protect her.

At first, I refused to leave Syria. When it got too dangerous in Damascus, I left my shop and set up a workshop in my house outside the city. But lots of people in the town were killed. I saw my neighbour’s teenage son coming out of the mini market when a bomb fell on him and blew his head in half. Houses were destroyed by the bombs. Body parts were in the streets. Then the chemical weapons came – my head pounded, my eyes ran and I couldn’t breathe. At first it was difficult to adapt in the camp. Back home I could move around at 11pm without being asked for my identity card. I had a lovely home with an internal courtyard and a fountain and birds. I dream of rebuilding my house and restarting my fashion business. I love clothes. If I don’t feel elegant, I don’t leave my house. I love white because to me, it’s suggests a ‘white clean heart’, and I like black because it feels strong. I can’t be as stylish as I’d like to be in the camp, though. Here men gossip a lot about women, especially about what they are wearing – it’s because they don’t have work and are bored. Lots of men control their wives and daughters here.

‘CLOTHES ARE EVERYTHING TO ME. I LOVE THEM. IT’S IMPORTANT TO ME TO TRY AND LOOK ATTRACTIVE’

Lama, 27

Lama came to Zaatari six years ago. Her husband, a car mechanic, is missing, presumed dead. She has a son aged eight and a daughter aged five.

One morning in August 2013, six or seven men in military uniform snatched my husband’s youngest brother from the street. They then stormed into our house and took my brother, my husband, four of his other brothers and his father. It was completely random – they hadn’t done anything wrong. They took the men to prison, then searched our house for weapons. When the soldiers didn’t find any they looted my house taking our car, motorcycle and the air-conditioning unit. That was the last I saw or heard of my husband, my brother, my husband’s father and his brothers. We tried to find them but I was too frightened to go to the prison as people said that everyone who was taken there had been killed. Some families have received their loved one’s identity card back. I didn’t. I never saw my husband’s body. It grew too dangerous to stay there, so the following month I left Syria with my brother, my son and baby daughter. We’ve been in the camp for six years. My mother has followed us, which helps and makes me feel less alone. My daughter doesn’t remember her father but my son does. We don’t have a picture of him, but I see him in my children’s faces. Clothes are everything to me. I love them. It’s important to me to try and look attractive. I used to work for Oxfam in the camp, teaching hygiene to children, and I’d wake up one hour early just to choose my outfit and put on make-up. My daughter is like me – she loves dressing up. Black is my favourite colour but I picked this outfit to wear for the picture because it is light and sparkly and I like the soft material. If I don’t have money to pay for new clothes, I style what I have, matching colours. Most days I wear make-up, which I buy in the camp. I always wear sunblock. When I first came to Zaatari, I was too traumatised to talk, and didn’t care about my appearance at all. It’s still hard now, and whenever I’m alone, I cry. Putting on make-up is like putting on a brave face. It makes me feel more confident. But I loved my husband and miss him a lot.

‘BEING ELEGANT IS IMPORTANT TO ME BECAUSE IT SHOWS THAT I STILL RESPECT MYSELF’

Sahar, 37

Sahar made the journey to Zaatari at the end of 2013. A mother of seven children, she now works as a trainer for Oxfam, helping women on a project making and selling bags from the UN tents they used to live in.

It took a week to get to the camp. We squeezed into a truck to get to the Syria/Jordan border and waited for days in the desert. It was so cold and there was snow on the ground; we had to resort to eating plants to get by. I was breastfeeding my four month-old daughter at the time. She was sick and weak and was so quiet I thought she was dying. My three year-old son shrieked incessantly because his arm had been broken in an air strike. I made a sling for him with one of my scarves. Looking back, it’s hard to say how I felt. I was numb but determined to keep my family safe. When we finally made it into Jordan, I went straight to hospital. Doctors put my son’s arm in a cast and my baby and I were admitted – she was so dehydrated, she nearly died. I think it’s why she’s still so small now. I try not to think about what we had in Syria or compare it to the camp. We had a good life there – a nice house, good schools; we grew vegetables in our garden. My husband worked away in a market in Damascus and came home once or twice a week. We left after our house was destroyed by air strikes. A shelter near the one we were in was bombed. It killed all 80 people inside, and lots of people were injured in our shelter, too. When my son broke his arm it was the last straw. We knew then we had to go. Like most women, I love clothes. Here we shop for clothes and sometimes if I see a design I like, I will ask a tailor to make it for me, or I make it myself. When I go out to work, I wear a tracksuit top and at home I wear dresses. I love dark blue because it’s sophisticated. I do care about my clothes and the way I look. Even during the war in Syria, being elegant and taking care of my appearance was important to me because it showed I still respected myself. The way I look represents who I am – my strength.

‘SOME GIRLS WEAR SHORT DRESSES WITH TROUSERS, BUT THE BOYS TEND TO HARASS THEM, SO I PREFER LONG DRESSES’

Nuha, 15

In Syria, my sister and I shared a bedroom. Here we all fit in one caravan, with my brothers too, six of us altogether. I don’t go to school any more, not just because we get harassed by boys, but because my dad says that now my mother is working I must keep our place clean. I do hang out with my friends, though. We chat and play games on my mum’s phone. Some of my friends from Syria are here in Zaatari. Some are married already but I don’t want to get married yet, I’m not ready. There’s a piano here and I’d love to learn to play it so I could teach music when I go back to Syria. I love clothes. I wouldn’t say I have my own style, I just like lots of things, especially if they are sophisticated. I like clothes to match so I look different from my friends. I have three dresses. Yellow is my favourite colour, although I don’t have anything yellow. My mother chose the dress I’m wearing, but I chose the scarf. My friends and I talk about fashion and make-up all the time – we watch Arab singers on the internet. I’m always looking at other peoples’ clothes and I get ideas from TV. I did a make-up course a year ago, but gave the make-up to my friends because my father doesn’t like me wearing it. Some girls wear short dresses with trousers, but the boys tend to harass them, so I prefer long dresses.

‘I AM WEARING A TRADITIONAL HAURAN [SOUTHERN SYRIAN] DRESS. PEOPLE SEE ME IN IT AND KNOW WHERE I’M FROM. IT MAKES ME FEEL CONNECTED TO MY HOME TOWN’

Maha, a mother of nine, is currently five months pregnant.

When I came to the camp in March 2013, I was pregnant. Now, I am expecting again and go to the clinic every couple of months for my antenatal appointments. Back in Syria I was a housewife in the southwestern city of Daraa. I had to leave everything I own behind because we left in such a hurry. I thought I’d only be gone for a month – but seven years later, here I am.

I like my outfit. This is a traditional dress for the Hauran people. People see me in it and know where I’m from – it makes me feel connected to my home town. It’s in my favourite colour, green. The colour suits me and it is optimistic and hopeful. You must have hope here. It took six months to adapt to life here, but slowly we did. Life is better now, but nevertheless, every day I still think, ‘Shall I stay or shall I go?’ My parents are still in Syria and I miss them so much – but we’re too frightened to go back because I’m worried the military will take my sons. Wearing nice clothes makes me feel a bit better, though. It’s not just about keeping warm, it’s about looking good. A woman should look her best. My husband should see me looking nice.

Oxfam has been saving and easing lives since the early days of the Zaatari camp, delivering clean water, washing facilities and private toilets to 21,000 people. Paid work for refugees is hard to come by as permits make it difficult to work outside the camp, especially for women. To improve skills, confidence and generate income, Oxfam runs programmes enabling these women to grow vegetables in giant greenhouses and make bags out of the UN tents the refugees originally lived in. It also runs a recycling centre to handle the waste generated in the camp, providing employment for 160 people. To find out more about Oxfam’s work or to donate, go to oxfam.org.uk/syriaappeal