More than 465,000 people have died in Syria’s war and more than 12 million have been displaced – but two young women are determined to keep the humanity of those affected from disappearing into the numbers.
“The names, struggles and words of these people should be heard, vocalised and spread, because they are what matters,” Marianne and Melina Moussalli, the Syrian Lebanese sisters who founded the Ana Collection, noted on their website.
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Each doll in their collection is made of soft, white cotton decorated with colourful designs that tell the stories of families displaced by war, and profits from the dolls go back to help the affected families. The word “ana” means “I” in Arabic, and each doll, which bears the name of a Syrian mother, comes with a stitched tag that says: “I protect the dreams of my children.”
One doll, Adryeh, is decorated with a beautiful village of trees and homes nestled together. In a pocket on the back is a card that tells Adryeh’s story, which speaks of her son, Hassan.
“He always tells me that he dreams of building us a new home,” the card reads.
There are a variety of different lines of dolls within the Ana Collection, including From Inside Aleppo, Stories from the Bekaa, the Holiday Collection and more. Mariam, a Holiday doll, is stitched with a picture of her son, Abed, crouching in the grass with the one thing he wishes for: a tiger as a friend.
And Falak’s blue-and-white skirts tell the story of her daughter, Amal, who fears that if the family tries to travel to Europe by sea, the boat will sink and she will be eaten by fish.
The hands that make these dolls are no strangers to the suffering of these families: The artisans who work with the Moussalli sisters to craft these dolls are also refugees from Syria, having fled to Lebanon’s Shatila refugee camp since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. Struggling for survival in the decades-old Palestinian camp, which has been overwhelmed by thousands of new arrivals from Syria, they have found a way to express themselves while also helping to support their families.
“Our motivation was at first simply a way of giving back to Aleppo, Syria, where we grew up,” Marianne said, noting that they have been working on the Ana Collection for the past year and a half with the help of their parents and these other refugees. “It has now turned into wanting to provide jobs to the women who are helping us embroider – refugees helping other refugees.”
They are always very touched by the stories that come with the doll … especially when they know that buying this doll will help out the person whose name it carries.
Inspiration first struck in January 2016, when the Moussalli sisters were running a children’s art class. It was inside that classroom that the first doll was born, with an aim to telling the story of a displaced Syrian family; the children created an early prototype, and the Moussalli sisters decided to develop the idea further.
Stories for future dolls came to the Moussallis from their aunt, who continues to live in Aleppo, where she works with hundreds of displaced families.
Marianne took the idea to an old schoolmate from Aleppo who co-founded Basmeh & Zeitooneh, a local NGO that works with the skilled women who could help to make their doll idea into a reality on a larger scale.
At the outset, there were only a few interested artisans, but as the months went on, the Ana Collection began to pick up steam.
“The artisans associate closely with one or more of the stories from the Ana Collection. In many cases, they connect to the recounting of past living circumstances, usually better than the more recent onset of war and displacement, and … the dreams and fears revealed through the stories and designs,” Saba Sadar, the women’s workshop project manager for Basmeh & Zeitooneh, told Al Jazeera.
The stories are also cherished by the people who have bought the dolls, Melina said.
“We always get feedback from people who buy the dolls. They are always very touched by the stories that come with the doll … especially when they know that buying this doll will help out the person whose name it carries,” she added.
The dolls range in price from $25 to $75 and can be purchased directly through the sisters’ website, or from vendors in various countries. The women who make the dolls are paid for their work, while 80 percent of all profits are sent to the family whose story is on the doll.