My Journey From Middle East Refugee To Fashion Designer.
My earliest memory is fleeing war-torn Lebanon when I was three and a half years old. My father had safely made it abroad and was waiting for my mother, my younger sister, and me to join him, holding on to hope that he’d see his family once again. As we said our good-byes, I remember the wet kisses from our relatives; I remember the sobs and the tearful wishes for our uncertain future. We were leaving our homeland as refugees, hoping to re-establish the meaning of “home” somewhere safe.
That was 30 years ago.
With the start of the Syrian war in 2011, I watched a new generation of refugees leave their home in search of safety, in the biggest humanitarian crisis the world has faced since World War II. The United Nations estimates there are nearly five million Syrian refugees globally; there are an estimated one and a half million refugees in Lebanon, my country of origin, alone. As of April 2016, the United States, the place I now call home, has accepted just 1,285 Syrian refugees. Progress? Yes. But this figure represents only 0.027% of the total population of those in need.
My family was lucky: We had somewhere to go. Having been forced to leave and then ultimately go back to Lebanon after the war officially ended, I have seen my parents reinvent themselves repeatedly; this kind of creative resilience isn’t just common among refugees and immigrants — it’s necessary if you want to survive. It’s also shaped my understanding of what it means to make one’s way in the world, especially as I’ve gone down an unorthodox path to become what most people wouldn’t agree is a secure, stable career: a fashion designer.
I dropped out of graduate school for fine arts in 2006 when the Israel-Hezbollah War hit Lebanon, because I saw how unexpectedly crisis can change our lives. In search of something more “concrete,” I took jobs throughout the years as a graphic designer, a user-experience consultant, and a teacher. But six years later, my passion drew me back in: I wanted to start my own fashion company, and once I moved to Brooklyn, I did.
In Lebanese culture, fashion and aesthetics are core — not just as something to impress others by, but as a way to express one’s self-worth. Even in the most chaotic of circumstances, the women in my life have always taken the time to mend their clothes and pay close attention to the outfits they’re wearing — never leaving the house without grabbing a handbag or scarf, items that are well-made and have meaning. For us, looking good was a way to retain our dignity.
With eclectic experience, a strong immigrant work ethic, and a desire to succeed, I embarked on a path to become a fashion designer. Starting Slow Factory was so much more than about creating my own line: It was about blending things from my past with my present — things like the sprawling starscapes of NASA satellite and telescope imagery that had given me perspective and strength when I felt lost as I traveled the world. I printed them on silk, making scarves that reminded me of the ones my grandmother used to wear around her hair like Sophia Loren.
As a designer, I have always believed it’s my responsibility to produce beautiful, meaningful, and ethically made items. I have a deep sense of valuing what you have, because I know how easily it (whether it’s a material possession or something greater, like your home) can be taken away from you.
As the current climate for refugees continues to worsen, I wanted to find a more poignant way to contribute to those in a similar position that I once was in. In Lebanon, wearing your key around your neck is an old tradition representing home; it was started by Palestinian refugees and has since become a symbol of the refugee crisis. In honor of this tradition, I worked with my sister in Beirut and with local craftspeople to make my first piece of jewelry: a white-gold necklace molded out of the key to my own family home in Lebanon. For the collection, We Are Home, we partnered with ANERA, an NGO that works with UNICEF to provide, among many things, training and education to refugees living in Lebanon.
Over the course of my life, I have often felt like global upheaval, whether it’s the Syrian refugee crisis or climate change or widespread political corruption, is beyond our control. But whenever I catch myself thinking like this, I remind myself to consider the universe. When wearing a key as a necklace pendant symbolizes displacement, it can remind us that we are in this vastness together; that we are home no matter where we are.
BY CELINE SEMAAN VERNON