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How Fashion Is a Refuge for Displaced Syrian Women

Fashion is more than just a means of expression in designer Celine Semaan's documentary short, 'Are We There Yet?'

Are We There Yet? from Slow Factory on Vimeo.

Just as there are millions of Syrian refugees, there are seemingly millions of documentaries vying to address and to expose the refugee crisis. Are We There Yet?, a new film from Celine Semaan, presents a different reality: how fashion plays a pivotal role in the lives of the displaced.   

As the owner and founder of Brooklyn's of Slow Factory, Semaan is far from your average fashion designer. Using her work as a designer to bring attention to social issues around the globe, Semaan understands fashion's innate ability to inspire empathy in its universal presentation of self-worth.

Are We There Yet? which debuted last week at SXSW ECO, takes a sharp look at the lives of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon and the role fashion plays in their lives. From scenes of women getting ready to go out and repairing old scarves, to going out on shopping ventures, the film demonstrates how fashion is more than a material good used to impress others. For many, it's a way of maintaining one’s dignity in the face of the unfathomable. 

For the 33 year-old Semaan, the documentary was a chance to present the refugee crisis in a different light. Semaan, speaking from her Brooklyn home where she is recovering from back surgery, discussed the impetus behind the project and its evolution with The Creators Project.

“There’s so little footage and images coming from that region that are not just sensationalistic or war porn, that drives people away from the cause, drives people away from empathy, because they are oversaturated because they’re overfed with constant images of terror.” For her, the purpose of the documentary was to show refugees are they are. “And surprisingly,” she says, “they look just like you and me.”

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Slow Factory, “Women Who Inspire,” Alaa Murabit, UN High Commissioner on Health and Employment

Semaan is no stranger to the plight of being a refugee, having been one herself. Her family left a war-torn Lebanon in 1989, when she was three years-old, relocating to Canada. Semaan moved to New York in 2013 to launch Slow Factory.

Are We There Yet? is her way of giving back to others affected by similar circumstances. Reflecting on her own experience, Semaan points out that even in the most chaotic of circumstances, the women in her 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,” she says.

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Slow Factory, “Women Who Inspire,” Cipriana Quann

According to Semaan, media coverage of the refugee crisis has only numbed Westerners. It’s hard to identify with refugees because we know nothing of their experience and daily lives. Ironically, it is through the lens of fashion—the desire to look good and present oneself to the world—that that distance narrows. 

Are We There Yet? does just that, depicting how fashion is a universally shared pleasure and need, and in the process, inspiring an empathy for those whose lives we once could barely imagine in the face of a constant barrage of war images. Fashion brings us closer, showing us the humanity that persists despite it all.

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Slow Factory, “Women Who Inspire,” Barbie Ferriera

Check out Semaan's We Are Home collection on Slow Factory’s website

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