The Syrian refugee tailor sewing face masks for Italians

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Years after conflict tore him from his trade, Mohamed al-Hassan is again putting his able hands to good use. Stefania D'Ignoti speaks to him in Sicily

World | The Independent

From the activity room window of Casa delle Culture community centre in Scicli, a village of 27,000 residents and Unesco World Heritage Site in Sicily, Syrian refugee Mohamed al-Hassan gazes out over an unusually quiet main boulevard.

Since the beginning of a nationwide lockdown to contain Europe’s largest coronavirus outbreak, leaving home in Italy is only permitted for emergencies or to get groceries; protective equipment such as face masks and gloves have been highly recommended by authorities to halt contagions.

In Scicli, where al-Hassan has been living with his family for the past six months, wearing masks became mandatory. But the increase in demand since the early days of the pandemic made them difficult to afford, or even find, at pharmacies across the country.

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Concerned about people’s health safety in his new home, last month al-Hassan dug up an old sewing machine at the community centre where he had been quarantined, and began producing handmade masks to be distributed across town.

“This is my own way to thank the people that welcomed me in Scicli and, symbolically, Italy as a whole,” al-Hassan tells The Independent. “In hard times, I learnt it’s important to support each other.”

The 34-year old arrived in Sicily in September 2019. Al-Hassan, his wife and three young children were among the 1,895 asylum-seekers selected in Lebanon since 2016 for the humanitarian corridors, a resettlement program led by Mediterranean Hope, a project by the Italian Protestant Church. These corridors offer a safe, alternative route to the otherwise dangerous boat journeys across the Central Mediterranean.

Once in Italy, the beneficiaries can apply for international protection under EU asylum law. The al-Hassan family was given recognised refugee status in December 2019, and is now spending lockdown in an independent apartment inside Casa delle Culture’s three-story building, that currently hosts and supports 28 more refugees who arrived in Scicli through the corridors.

Even before the pandemic in Italy, al-Hassan was no stranger to crises wreaking havoc on his daily routine. Before conflict in Syria changed life has he knew it, al-Hassan conducted a normal, quiet life in the northern outskirts of Aleppo.

Al-Hassan worked as a tailor in Aleppo prior to the Syrian Civil War (Stefania Ignoti/The Independent)

Then, one night in 2013, he never returned home from work. “I had been kidnapped by a rebel group ... My parents had to pay a ransom. After I was released, I decided to send [my whole family] to Lebanon, thinking it would be safer for them there. But I decided to stay.”

For three long years, al-Hassan used his hands primarily to scrape the rubbles, searching for survivors buried amid the remains of buildings collapsed in the shelling that kept him awake at night.

But when in 2016 airstrikes in Aleppo intensified, he finally joined his children and wife in Beirut, where they both worked below minimum wage as school custodians until resettling in Italy.

Today in Sicily, those same hands who dug for the dead now cut, sew and repurpose fabrics. “I had forgotten my hands were also capable of creating,” he says, as his memory travels back in time.

Before 2011, al-Hassan says he worked as a tailor at a workshop in old town Aleppo; the conflict economy forced him to give up his creativity for a job as car driver.

Piero Tasca, support officer at Casa delle Culture, explains no one in Scicli knew about al-Hassan’s past until they saw him sewing masks.

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“In the six months he has spent with us, Mohamed wouldn’t open up much. We could tell that years of traumas weighed on his shoulders,” Tasca tells The Independent. “But when he took that long-forgotten sewing machine, he looked like a brand-new person. He was visibly happy. Helping others is helping him face his internal wounds.”

Every day, at his small window corner in Scicli, al-Hassan produces about 30 cloth masks, which are made to be easy to hand-wash and reuse to avoid plastic waste. “I have nothing else to offer apart the labour of my hands,” he says.

Ivana De Stasi, an Italian language teacher who helped al-Hassan’s children integrate in the local education system, says she was moved to receive the first mask he produced.

“It was motivational to see such a soft-spoken man putting so much effort into helping the community he quietly learnt to be a part of. He sewed masks of all sizes, including tiny ones for children,” she tells The Independent. “We have a whole attitude to learn from someone who experienced lockdown in much worse conditions in Syria.”

The next phase of al-Hassan’s resettlement program will be finding a job suitable to his skills. De Stasi believes that, despite the likely post-crisis economic hardships in Sicily, his dormant passion awakened by the emergency will direct him towards the right work opportunity.

“Sewing these masks for me is a pastime that brings me back to the carefree days when bombs or Isis were completely off our radars or daily conversations,” al-Hassan says, his fingers moving tirelessly.

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