Woolen scarves produced at the Rafedìn tailoring workshop in Amman, Jordan. The workshop is hosted in the premises of the Latin parish of Mar Yousef and it provides employment for approximately 20 young Iraqi women who sought refuge in Jordan. Credit: Marinella Bandini

Marinella Bandini
Catholic News Agency

In Amman, Jordan, there is a tailoring workshop where, in addition to creating clothing and accessories, the wounds of life are stitched back together.

It is called Rafedìn, which means “the two rivers.” The rivers refer to the Tigris and the Euphrates, enclosing Mesopotamia, the land of Iraq. The name was chosen by the first Iraqi girls who participated in the project: approximately 20 young women who fled the persecution of ISIS in 2014. In Jordan, they attempted to rebuild their future.

The project was launched eight years ago, on Feb. 24, 2016. Since then, approximately 150 young women have been trained, according to Father Mario Cornioli, the founder and coordinator of the project.

“We started with the ‘cash for training’ formula: Those who attended the training courses received expense reimbursements. It was a way to assist with dignity, providing professional training and helping them support their families,” Cornioli told CNA.

Cornioli comes from a family of entrepreneurs, a characteristic that emerges in his practical approach to challenges and attention to details, which are coupled with a profound spirit of service.

In 2013, he founded the nongovernmental organization Habibi, of which he is the president, supporting various human and social development projects, including Rafedìn, in both Bethlehem and Jordan, where Cornioli has carried out his mission.

In fact, after being ordained a priest in 2002 for the Diocese of Fiesole, Italy, he arrived in the Holy Land in 2009 as a “fidei donum” priest of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. (“Fidei donum” refers to priests, deacons, and laypeople who serve temporarily in an existing diocese by way of an agreement between the sending bishop and the receiving bishop.) Since 2015, he has been in Jordan, serving with Iraqi refugees.

According to the latest statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in Jordan there are nearly 718,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers, including more than 55,000 Iraqis. They have arrived in multiple waves since the 1990s, after the First Gulf War. In 2014, during the significant exodus due to the rise of the Islamic State, Christian churches and organizations alone welcomed over 10,000 refugees.

What began as an emergency of a few weeks transformed into a long-term situation, bringing forth challenges related to residency, the sustenance of families, access to health care, education, and employment.

As explained in a report from Caritas, Iraqi refugees in Jordan do not receive legal status. This means they cannot work legally, making it difficult for them to sustain themselves. Consequently, they are compelled to seek settlement elsewhere, particularly in Australia, Canada, or the United States, even though their ultimate dream is to return to their homeland one day.

It is in this context that Rafedìn was born.

“We are here to tell them that God has not abandoned them,” Cornioli said. “We started with the idea of restoring dignity to these people.”

With the support, not only financially but also professionally, of friends and volunteers, Rafedìn took its first steps. “Some seamstresses and fashion designers got involved,” Cornioli explained, particularly the designer Rosaria Mininno, who left her job in Italy last year to move to Amman and dedicate herself full time to Rafedìn. The fashion designer Antonella Mazzoni also joined them.

Currently, 19 girls are employed, all of whom are Christians. The workshop is hosted in the premises of the Latin parish of Mar Yousef. This serves as a means to protect the women working there who might not have had the opportunity to do so otherwise.

“One of the crafts that sets us apart is patchwork. The idea originated to reuse fabric scraps, but it also holds symbolic value,” according to Cornioli. “Just as something new and beautiful can emerge from scraps of fabric joined together, these ‘discarded’ girls, when united, can create beauty around them, as demonstrated by this project.”

For Cornioli, contact with refugees is what nourishes his own faith.

“They are people of extraordinary faith: They have lost everything they had but have kept their faith alive. For me, for my work, they are an endless source of personal enrichment and edification,” he said.

Since 2018, the project has been supported by the Italian Bishops’ Conference and benefits from the collaboration of the association Pro Terra Sancta. Since 2020, there has been a partnership with the French Embassy in Jordan.

Over the years, Rafedìn has grown, developing various production lines and expanding its collections. Now, it is economically self-sufficient: “We cover expenses and manage to provide a small salary to the girls,” Cornioli said.

Luna Sharbel, 25, arrived last November after leaving Iraq with her husband and two children. They are from Qaraqosh and made the decision to leave after a fire destroyed a structure during a wedding party resulting in more than 100 casualties.

“There is no work, no security in Iraq. Now we hope to leave soon for Australia, where my husband’s entire family is already settled,” she said.

In the meantime, Sharbel works at Rafedìn: “I feel good here. Even though I don’t think I’ll continue doing this work, coming here gives me hope.”

Hope is also the word found on Rafedìn’s label: “Fashion seen through threads of hope.”

“For these young women, being forced to leave their homeland is an open wound,” Cornioli explained. “Working, organizing their day, contributing to support their family has a positive impact, even psychologically. As they sew, the threads of colored cotton become threads of healing, of hope for the future, the fabric of a new life.”