Interview by Citrine Ghraowi, Photography by Joana Meurkens
June of 2021 will always be a memorable month for me. I traveled to Beirut, Lebanon and made memories and connections with familiar faces in a sea of new ones as well. Amongst them, I met Natalie Garland, a native New Yorker who has been living in Lebanon for the last 3 years. It was inspiring to see a foreigner so passionate and committed to bringing about change in a country enduring a protracted crisis. In addition to working towards her PhD, Natalie works with MAPs (Multi-Aid Programs) a Syrian refugee-led NGO based in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon that provides community-based humanitarian aid to disenfranchised Syrian and Lebanese people. Over the course of my four weeks in Beirut, I learned first hand how Lebanon’s economic collapse creates a domino effect of social disparities, and I grew inspired by Natalie’s grassroot work tackling these challenges.
What are communities’ coping mechanisms when basic services and dignified employment opportunities no longer exist? This is the question Natalie asks both conceptually as a PhD student and as a refugee advocate. Her hands-on work revolves around supporting genuine self-reliance so that the most vulnerable have the means to live in dignity. For example, with MAPs, during the height of the Covid pandemic, she co-founded Robogee, an enterprise dedicated to changing the narrative around refugee capabilities while also raising funds for STEM education. In 2019, she co-founded the Crochet Community Collective (CCC), which provides 75 Syrian and Lebanese artisans with monthly incomes through the international sales of crochet toys and figurines. The remaining profits of CCC fund a MAPs primary school located inside a refugee camp.
When I met Natalie this summer, she was contemplating creating a bag collection as part of the larger CCC initiative. “I want to create something fun and fashionable to market to New Yorkers,” she told me. “How many times can your friends and family buy crochet toys?” she laughs. In August, Natalie arrived in New York City with 100 crochet hand bags to pilot the idea. Today, it is a brand called Lamsa. MixedMag is honored to write about Lamsa, a beautiful underground initiative that is changing the lives of Syrian and Lebanese women.
“The essence of MAPs is to foster self-reliance and provide refugees with the tools necessary for creating and imagining their own futures,” Natalie tells me. The organization isn’t simply a temporary fix, “MAPs resists harmful dynamics of dependency between the vulnerable and the aid system. Rather, the organization strives to strengthen community bonds, inspiring and reminding individuals of their full potential and capacities,” she adds.
“This vision is reflected in the backbone of Lamsa, which is dedicated to celebrating the women as unique artisans, and not simply as ‘refugee beneficiaries’ to a humanitarian project. In fact, the word ‘Lamsa’ means “touch” in Arabic, representing how every woman has placed their own special touch to whatever item you now own,” she tells me excitedly. While Natalie is the creative director of this project, the artists have creative agency to experiment with new ideas and the process of co-design has become fundamental to the beauty and success of Lamsa. “As a brand, Lamsa’s goal is for buyers to understand the impact of their purchase, while at the same time making the purchase from love of the item first, and not out of pity.”
Natalie explained that at the inception of CCC, the majority of the women did not know how to crochet nor would they dream of referring to themselves as “artisans”. There was also no sense of community or connection amongst the women. Fostering genuine bonds was a huge challenge that took time. Natalie explains how, “there is the common misconception that all Syrian refugees feel a sense of community because of their shared trauma and nationality. That is simply not true at all.” Over the course of around two years, a genuine community has fostered around crochet and the women are rightfully warming up to their ‘artisan’ identity.
Crochet is an artistic tradition across the Levant passed down from generations of women. Historically, crochet has been a leisure activity and thus many of the CCC artisans refer to crochet as a nostalgic pre-war and crisis activity, which they either never had the opportunity to learn or knowledge they had forgotten. “Crochet has now become a lifeline. Lebanon is experiencing an unprecedented economic collapse resulting in hyper inflation and a lack of employment opportunities, meaning that basic household items and even bread is hard to afford. Majority of families do not have enough food to eat these days,” Natalie mentions. “You can’t even imagine the significance of each purchase.”
As our conversation came to a close, I asked Natalie where she sees Lamsa in the next few years. “The hope is that Lamsa bags become sought after exclusive items around the world. Now that we had a glimpse of Lamsa’s success in New York City, I am motivated to grow this into something self-sustaining!”
Since our interview, Natalie has held a pop-up in Beirut and is planning events in London. She hopes to collaborate with fashion designers around the world to create one-of-a-kind collections that celebrate the art of crochet and showcase the stories of marginalized women. “Like any grassroot initiative, there is space for improvement. But that is exciting! There is something to work towards. And the work is literally life changing.”
Citrine Ghraowi is a first-generation Palestinian/Syrian raised in Texas and currently residing in Brooklyn, New York. Citrine is unsure what a fulfilled life truly entails, but imagines that it starts with seeing a free Syria and a Palestine existing outside of Israeli occupation.