South Sudanese refugees fled for their lives carrying only embroidered sheets. Now, these stunning pieces of art can provide a lifeline for survival.
The refugees walked from South Sudan to Uganda with their last possessions bundled in sheets decorated with swirls of flowers, trees, and animals, and perched on their heads.
In a sprawling refugee camp in Uganda, National Geographic photographer Nora Lorek asked residents what they’d brought from home when fighting broke out in 2016. “Nothing,” one woman replied, “except for some clothes wrapped in my bedsheet.” When Lorek asked around, more women retrieved their milayas, posing for portraits that were featured in the magazine.
The civil war in South Sudan has displaced more than two million people. Before the war, these milayas were used for dowries and celebrations. Today, in Bidibidi, the second largest refugee camp in the world, women continue to sew milaya. They’re hung at church on Sundays, and decorate funerals and weddings. But there are few customers.
The Milaya Project is a non-profit started by photographer Nora Lorek and writer Nina Strochlic that will connect South Sudanese refugees with customers who want to support the traditional art form. The money raised by this Kickstarter will fund women’s collectives in Bidibidi to create new milaya products—including beautifully embroidered pillowcases, bedspreads, and wall hangings—and sell them in an online shop.
In a tarp-covered courtyard next to her house, Rose Jaun (shown below standing in front of her blue milaya) commands a group of seamstresses. She arrived from South Sudan with six children and two bedsheets and quickly launched a collective for 60 women to earn a small income. When her village was holding elections she won a seat representing women on the refugee council. Now, a year later, she’s the chairperson of a cluster of villages in Bidibidi.
Our plan: Introducing the Milaya Project
Rose Jaun and other women's collectives have commercial dreams, but no transportation, supplies, or buyers in the remote camp. The Milaya Project plans to be a conduit for these groups to sell their work internationally. While traditional milayas are sprawling patterns on large sheets, we will help adapt their designs to a variety of new products, like pillowcases, bedspreads, wall hangings, and even clothing.
Our first project will be throw pillows. The technical ability to make them doesn't currently exist in Bidibidi, so we will set up trainings for the collectives and provide supplies like sewing machines, fabrics, threads, and embroidery hoops. A hired local coordinator will oversee the project. The milaya products they make will be sold in an online store, with all profits returning to the women’s collectives in Bidibidi. In the future, the collectives can become self-sufficient business operations.
A limited number of embroidered pieces were purchased from women’s collectives in Bidibidi and sewn into pillowcases and bedspreads by us. We want to let you have the most choice in your reward, so please read the descriptions below for instructions on how to pick your milaya or print.
Please note that the pieces may have minor flaws due to the circumstances in which they were made.
Postcards – A set of three postcards to send to your friends.
Posters – Choose from one of three photographs for a 18x24 inch (46x61 cm) poster. (For a detailed look at the posters click here.) After donating please leave your preference in a comment.
Limited-Quantity Pillowcases – We asked Rose Jaun's collective to create four small designs to turn into prototype throw pillows. Click here for a detailed look at the purple, green, white, or blue options. (Please note: The pillow is not included & unavailable colors will be marked "sold out.") After donating please leave your top 2 color preferences in a comment or email firstname.lastname@example.org. We only have 19 of these, but never fear! You can pre-order a future version, details below.
Pre-order Pillowcases – The 2.0 pillowcase will be made with Kickstarter funds! While milayas are typically large designs on a bedsheet, The Milaya Project pillowcases will showcase traditional designs on a smaller scale, against a white background. We will provide trainings and high-quality materials to the collectives for their production. These throw pillowcases will be the first in a series of new products using milaya patterns sold by The Milaya Project. (Stay tuned for wall hangings, bedspreads, and more!) The estimated delivery is early next year.
Single & Double-Pattern Milayas – To launch the project, we collected a limited number of large milayas from Bidibidi. Pick from available designs on our website milayaproject.org (those unavailable will be marked "sold out"). After donating please leave your top 3 preferences in a comment or email email@example.com.
Pre-order Single Pattern Milaya – Due to the popularity of the single-pattern milayas we've added this reward level! Pre-order a milaya that will be made with the funds raised by this Kickstarter! We will provide trainings and high-quality materials to the collectives for their production. These sheets will showcase a large, traditional embroidered design and be the first in a series of new products sold by The Milaya Project. The estimated delivery is early next year.
Signed, Limited-Edition Print – Own a 16x20 inch (40x50 cm) print signed by photographer Nora Lorek. The images were taken on assignment for National Geographic. One is shown below and four more are available on our website. After donating please email the print of your choice to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Please note: The frame is not included, and unavailable prints will be marked "sold out.")
Special thanks to Dominique Hildebrand, Whitney Highfield, Liz Calka, Mallory Benedict, and National Geographic for helping launch The Milaya Project.
Risks and challenges
The milayas are being made by women who live in a refugee camp. There's always a risk that the political situation will shift or develop. That's one reason we want to equip these entrepreneurs with a business that can sustain itself. With Kickstarter funding, we will set up the project in Bidibidi. The timeframe for the pre-ordered pillow delivery and the launch of our official online shop is dependent on trainings, supply purchasing, crafting time, and international transport. Snags along the way cannot always be predicted, but we expect this process to move smoothly and have the orders ready for delivery by July and early next year.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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