“Syrian carpets are like treasure for us, their designs are so elaborate.”
Head down and pencil in hand, Manal is putting the finishing touches to her colourful carpet.
It may only be in the design stage at the moment, but the 33-year-old will soon begin stitching her carpet for real.
As she will tell you, this is no ordinary carpet. This is an authentic Syrian carpet – known the world over for their intricate designs and handmade quality.
“Syrian carpets are so beautiful and are part of our culture,” said Manal. “You can’t find carpets like them anywhere else in the world.”
The mother-of-four has never made a carpet before in her life, yet she harbours dreams of opening her own carpet workshop.
That’s because she is one of 60 people learning how to make carpets as part of a Syrian Arab Red Crescent project, with support from the British Red Cross.
The aim of the training is simple: give people the skills and knowledge to produce and trade carpets so they can earn a living.
Carpets amid calm
Making and selling carpets in Syria? It sounds implausible in a country wrecked by conflict. But there are pockets of relative calm.
The project is taking place in Al-Qutayfah, a rural town about 25 miles east of Damascus. It is a relatively stable area, which means it draws in people fleeing the violence.
It’s estimated that around 5,400 displaced families – roughly 27,000 people – are living in the area.
“Such an influx of people inevitably leads to huge pressures on the local economy and humanitarian system,” said Dr Hosam Faysal, who heads our Syria response work in the region.
“Those fleeing the violence cannot take many personal possessions with them. Then there’s the price inflation due to the crisis, which has forced many shops and factories to close.
“So you have a situation where people are in need of both financial and humanitarian support.
“Al-Qutayfah is well known for its carpet making tradition within Syria, but it has been disrupted by the crisis.
“Hopefully we can help to kick-start this industry again, albeit on a small scale, and enable people to provide for themselves and create jobs in the area.”
Manal signed up to the six-month programme to help provide for her family, but there are other benefits.
“My main reason for joining was to improve our financial situation, but I also love painting and drawing, so I’m really enjoying the training,” she said.
“We’re learning so much – the different types of stitches, measuring thread, measuring pile, the knitting process, types of yarn, how to use the loom…
“I will keep the first piece of carpet I make as a memory of the training and to motivate me to open a small workshop.
“As a woman with zero experience in this profession, I am starting to feel confident with my new skills.
“When I finish the training, the income I get from selling the carpets will help me to support my husband and children, which will be good for my self-esteem. I will be a ‘self-sufficient’ woman.”
The participants on the programme will receive training in how to market and sell the carpets they produce.
Marah, 20, is also learning how to make carpets. And like Manal, the training has improved her morale as well as her economic prospects.
“When I’m sitting on the loom working on the patterns I feel really happy,” said Marah. “It has boosted my creativity and it’s a good feeling to be doing something for myself. I’ve never had a job before as I didn’t have any skills.
“When I’ve finished the training I will work hard to set up my own small workshop to produce and sell carpets. It will mean a lot to me to be able to help my family’s income.
“Syrian carpets are among the most popular and famous in the world. You can’t find them anywhere else in the Middle East. That’s why I’m sure I can make a success of this.”