Ahlam – My gifted friend, my collaborator, my teacher, my inspiration

In celebration of 70 years of protecting those forced to flee, British fasion designer and professor Helen Storey tells us about her dear friend – Ahlam.

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© Helen Storey


Ahlam, her name means dreams in Arabic, lives in Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan, we first met in 2016 – an unexpected and mutually held gaze, for what felt like minutes, across a dusty caravan floor, but more deeply, across language, culture, faith and very different life circumstances.

The moment seemed to hold some mystery too, yet 5 years later we would have become friends with ambitions and co-created plans to meet the needs of the women soap and perfume makers in camp. 

Ahlam fled Syria at the beginning of the war, some of her family staying behind, whilst she brought the children with her. She is a Mother figure to many and quickly became a community leader, holding a crucial social space for women to meet to share their unique life challenges, as well as learn new skills which could lead to bettering their economic situation. 

The vision, for what would go onto become the ‘Made in Zaatari Centre’ some 3 years later, was born out of the sound of children running around the yard, the lull of babies in their parked prams and the warm animation of women’s voices, as they gathered around a single gas stove and basin, where Ahlam would show them how soap could be made.

The moment seemed to hold some mystery too, yet 5 years later we would have become friends with ambitions and co-created plans to meet the needs of the women soap and perfume makers in camp. 

The global fragrance company, Givaudan, were invited to deliver industrial and professionalised training over a 3 year period. At the end of one of the sessions, Ahlam, reading the room, could sense the women were silently struggling with how to take what they had learned into starting their own homebased businesses; pushing her chair back and at the top of her voice, she announced  

“It takes 5JD (£4.99) to start a business – if you don’t have it – come to me, I’ll give it to you”. 

Collaboration continued and on International Women’s Day in March 2019, the ‘Made in Zaatari’ centre opened, a collaborative endeavour between UNHCR, Blumont, Givaudan and the confidence of the women themselves. This centre for female creativity and economic empowerment, occupies 5 caravans, placed around the wonder of a Syrian designed water fountain and amongst tenacious jasmine plants and roses, defying their desert conditions; there is a kitchen/café, a soap lab, a beauty salon, an exhibition/shop space, a creche and a hydroponics garden, which grows vegetables and herbs from old mattresses, an imaginative environmentally responsive technology, co – created in camp with The University of Sheffield. 

Above all, Ahlam is a teacher, in part through natural aptitude, but also in how she lives, a fortitude won from the deep vulnerability war brings, yet symbolic of the strength to be found in all women.  

In her words, a refugee is, “A human being before anything – a person who wishes for a decent life, to secure income to spend on families, always helps others and with a passion to beautify places, so people have a passion to learn new things there”.


This piece was written by Helen Storey, UNHCR Designer in Residence and Professor at the London College of Fashion, University of The Arts London.

You can follow Helen on Twitter and Instagram.

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