I walked into the sewing room this morning and was greeted like an old friend by the women I met yesterday. They had decided who would be the first three to come with me and were busy adjusting their scarves from their open face style (indoors with other women) to covered face (outside) ready for the off.
Somewhat hesitantly we wheeled the trolley (with mat, stools and sound system) out over the rough ground. Although we had secured it with strong bolts and wheeled it around the hotel where we built it and then the office, this was its first road test on the uneven ground of the camp. There are a few paved roads, others are made of pressed hard core. More challenging for the trolley are the ditches down the side of the road – the crossing points are designed for a person on foot not for a 60 cm wide trolley. We lurched, we pushed, we pulled. We made it.
The women working with me were a little unsure about the whole thing. I could feel their doubts. What had seemed like a brilliant idea yesterday in the focus group was much harder to feel confident about out here in the camp. People stopped and stared. It was a little embarrassing to be honest. What was this strange machine? What on earth were we doing? Without any of the CARE staff I could only use body language to communicate with the women to reassure them. And we had different ideas of where we should go. They favoured gathering spots like the clinic or the school, where I was keen to dive into the blocks of shelters to share the idea with the hard to reach women.
We ground to a halt and decided we needed a translator. One of them ran back to the community centre and after what felt like an age, returned with Ramzi, one of the outreach workers. With his help we agreed to try one of each and see how we got on. However at the first spot the elected community representative was wary that some residents might not like it. At first I found it hard to let go of my original vision, but soon realised that we needed to start somewhere, in whichever way worked, so the women could build their confidence in the process. As the machine gets more familiar then it will make sense to people.
We set up in another block by the water tap. The green tarpaulin worked like a magic carpet. As soon as we spread it on the ground we all felt better. I know from my colour psychology work how important green is – the colour of universal love, of acceptance of all. And in Islamic culture green has a lot of resonance. The tarpaulin felt like a pool of safety. Even though we were in the middle of a wide open, windswept place the glossy green disc worked as a space maker, supported by the ring of red stools. A village green. A safe haven.
The women we invited to join us were puzzled by the idea, wary of something new, looking for the early adopters who they might follow. Which turned out to be the children. Soon we had more than 30 children from 1 to 12 years old, crowded onto the ‘village green’ listening intently to the adult radio drama Hay el Matar. Afterwards, Ramzi observed how unusual it was for them to sit still and listen. Usually they are wilder, more energised and easily distracted.
For the second pilot we went to the women’s centre run by UNFPA. More than a dozen pregnant women and mothers were young children gathered round. It is an odd experience to listen to a 15 minute episode of a soap opera and try to guess the story based on tone of voice and sound effects. Instead I used it as a chance to practice what I have been learning in coaching training about creating a safe space. Breathe into my hips, feel grounded and safe myself…. Spread my awareness to the corners of the room (or mat in this case)… encompass all the people in the space and share the field with them. It felt like it improved the attention, the quality of our connection.
When we went out again later in the day the women were exuberant. Much more confident than in the morning and as proud of the Pop-In as any young man in his V8 convertible. They relished the attention instead of cringing from it. With Shad Barmada blasting from the sound system they explained the idea to the women we passed then sprinted to the next stop, hauling the trolley behind them.
Then they surprised me. Which is a wonderful thing about letting projects pass from us to the people we are working with. They take them to places we would never have expected.
Somehow they manoeuvred the Pop-In up the steep awkward ramp into the food market. They set up in the fruit and veg area, explaining the idea enthusiastically to more women. They had a bit of fun parading along the aisles, music blasting, with a posse of dancing men following like the Pied Piper was in town.
Even more surprising was their next stop at the football pitch. Women don’t play football around here but their confidence now brought them and the Pop-In onto the pitch where they ‘opened’ (their term… a nice reflection of unfolding the mat and opening for business). They played some traditional Syrian music this time and sat on the stools themselves while with great delight the football team danced for them. I could feel the balance of power shifting in the whole camp.
Artmongering with Refugees: Chapter Three from Matt Allen on Vimeo.