The Common Good
November-December 1999

Healing Hands

by Michael McClanen | November-December 1999

Bosnian women weave ethnic harmony

Much like the mythical bird that rises from the ashes, members of Sarajevo Phoenix are rising from the devastation of the 1992-1995 war in the former Yugoslavia. The 17-person embroidery cooperative is comprised of Croatians, Muslims, and Serbians who are attempting to heal the wounds of despair, bitterness, and loss through the work of their hands.

The group—originally all women—formed in the fall of 1997; at that time they were all unemployed. Some existed on miniscule pensions. But each woman had learned to embroider at the feet of her mother and grandmother. Now the 16 women and 1 man meet in program director Bela Sejdic’s home, and in their own homes, to produce altar cloths, liturgical stoles, and wall hangings. Each person who cuts and sizes, designs, and embroiders represents the rich diversity of Bosnia-Hercegovina; each believes in a multi-ethnic Bosnia.

The cooperative formed with the help of Hands Raised Together (HaRT), a ministry associated with Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. Although the program’s goal calls for self-sufficiency, HaRT currently subsidizes Sarajevo Phoenix’s embroidery work. Members are paid $20 for a stole, for example, that HaRT contracts to sell for $12.50; HaRT pays the cooperative $12 to create a wall hanging that is sold for $6.50. Considering that many of the women’s pensions amount to only $40 a month, they can create three to four stoles and wall hangings and triple their monthly incomes.

Perhaps most important to the members, however, is the healing aspects of their work. Forty-one-year-old Fatima and her mother are, like most of their co-workers, refugees, having been forced to leave their home in Rogatica, in eastern Bosnia. When Fatima first joined the cooperative, her hands and face were covered with a red rash, and she continued to smoke cigarettes so that her body wouldn’t shake. Doctors said her illness was a reaction to the trauma of seeing her father killed and his body mutilated by Serb militia. Because Fatima couldn’t speak, her mother related her story, which was interspersed with periods of sobbing.

By spring 1998, however, Fatima was outgoing and hospitable, the red rash covering her body had cleared, and she wasn’t smoking to stop her body from shaking. She engaged in conversation with the other women in the group and, according to Bela Sejdic, is the best embroiderer in the group. An important impetus in her healing came through the opportunity to have meaningful work.

In March Docey Lewis, a consultant for an organization called SERRV (Sales Exchange for Refugee Rehabilitation Vocation), traveled to Sarajevo for five days to work with the women to set up production schedules and create new marketable designs.

During the first day Docey noticed that many of the women weren’t able to complete the fine detail work critical to embroidering. Although most wore eyeglasses, they suffered from poor eyesight. So during the next two days, each woman’s eyes were tested and fitted with new eyewear, providing a significant leap in the women’s confidence and ability to do their work.

Sarajevo Phoenix has now filled its first order of liturgical stoles and wall hangings, and the members are currently working on new sample orders for the Sandor Collection. The Collection works directly with Hungarian, Romanian, and Bosnian artists to develop handcrafted gifts that are based on traditional motifs and craft techniques.

The courage and will to survive shown by Sarajevo Phoenix is rooted in the diversity each person brings to the whole, like the fabric they embroider. The variety of colors and motifs in the fabrics coincide with the diversity in age, ethnicity, and economic self-reliance of the members as they seek to reweave the fabric of their lives within their communities.

MICHAEL McCLANEN directs the ministry of Hands Raised Together, which promotes education, youth sports programs, and meaningful work as catalysts in fostering sustainable development. Sarajevo Phoenix products can be purchased through the SERRV Holiday Catalog, 1-800-723-3712. For more information, contact: Sarajevo Phoenix Project, c/o Hands Raised Together, 11315 Neelsville Church Road, Germantown, MD 20876-4147; (301) 428-9560; HaRT9444@aol.com; www.members.aol.com/hart9444.

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