Six young Afghan women sit beneath an olive tree outside Vathy, a government-run refugee site on this Greek island, their pencils flying across their sketchbooks. Each page contains a human figure on which they draw elaborate dresses, skirts and blouses.
Every few minutes they glance at their storyboards: construction paper glitter-glued with shells, pebbles and leaves collected from nearby beaches and woods; any inspiration they can find.
The design course’s founder and volunteer teacher is Suhaila Nabi Zadeh, a 24-year old Afghan refugee who grew up in Tehran, Iran, where she studied fashion design.
«I teach them about the history of fashion, about their clothes and our traditions, and other fashion traditions in the world and the links between them,» Suhaila says. «I don’t believe there are borders when it comes to fashion. Everyone in the West and in the East has their own beliefs, but I’d like to unite the two worlds through fashion.»
For these young women, the class is a brief escape from an uncertain future in Europe. Many of the refugees and migrants living on the Greek islands stay and wait here for several months until the Greek authorities review their cases.
Afghans – despite comprising one of the most-common asylum-seeking nationality to reach Greek shores by sea – are not eligible for certain kinds of legal relief, such as the European Union’s relocation programme which distribute asylum-seekers across Europe in support of Greece. Many will remain in the country. In the meantime, those on the islands live in reception centres where basic services such as hot water are often difficult to access.
Many of the Afghans in Greece come from parts of their country that are under Taliban control. Others, like Suhaila, spent much of their lives in Iran, unable to return home to Afghanistan due to prolonged conflict and instability.
Growing up in Teheran, Suhaila spent afternoons in the shop of a local Iranian seamstress, mesmerized by the whir of the sewing machine and delicate stitches done by hand. Her favorite designer was the late Alexander McQueen. «Every collection of his is totally different,» she says.
When she and her mother were returned to Afghanistan, in the capital Kabul, she received threats due to her style of dress and outspokenness on the importance of women’s education. «I was forced to leave my country behind, so that I could find a safe place,» Suhaila says. «It wasn’t just difficult psychologically, I was afraid for my physical well-being.»
In spring 2016, the mother-daughter pair embarked on a month-long journey to Europe. They landed on Samos by rubber boat in April and since this traumatic journey, Suhaila’s mother suffers from numerous medical ailments.
Seeking to make the most of her time in Greece, Suhaila started the fashion-design course. «She came to our containers, one by one, and brought us pencils and paper and showed us that we could do this,» says 14-year-old Sara Safi, an Afghan refugee. Several of the young women worked hard to convince their parents and husbands to let them attend the class; in Afghanistan, they seldom left home other than to go to school.
Suhaila started by teaching them basic drawing techniques, such as proportionality and shading. They later moved into different clothing styles and patterns.
What Suhaila has achieved, however, goes well beyond fashion. «She is actually empowering women to follow their dreams, believe in their potential and design their own future inch by inch, just like the dresses,» says Rose de Jong, who heads the Office of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, on Samos.
Suhaila dreams of starting a company that sells clothing by women and for women. «Every artist wants to be free,» she says. «I want to be somewhere where I can feel free and have the freedom to create.»
In the meantime, Suhaila might have come one step closer to her dream – she left Samos for mainland Greece in one of the transfers UNHCR supported to reduce the overcrowding of the island camps. Since June 2016, over 10,000 people left the islands in official transfers, more than 6,000 with UNHCR’s help.
Suhaila is now waiting for the next step – the legal reunion with her brother and father who live in Switzerland.
«I don’t believe there are borders when it comes to fashion.» Suhaila had to convince the young Afghan women attending her class one by one, helping them in practice to believe in their potential. © Achilleas Zavallis
Pencils flying across the sketchbooks of the young Afghan women outside the Reception and Identification center of Vathy on Samos. © Achilleas Zavallis