The art of embroidery is a sentimental and social one to the women of South Sudan, but Nora Lorek & Nina Strochlic saw the potential in the craft to be able to support and sustain the women and their families who are living in refugee camps in Uganda. After visiting these refugee camps, Nora and Nina saw the beautiful embroidered sheets, called milayas, that almost every family had taken with them from home, but also saw a need for jobs in the growing community. They set out to bring the embroidered goods to market to provide an income for the women there, and thus The Milaya Project was born. There’s much more to their story than that, so read on to learn more about the impact they hope this project has on the world and be inspired to help.
Can you tell us a little bit about your story and what inspired you to launch The Milaya Project?
Nora: In 2017, on assignment for National Geographic in Bidibi camp in Uganda, I would ask South Sudanese refugees what they’d brought from home. I kept hearing one word over and over again: milaya. My translator said it meant “bed sheet”—little did I know that they were beautiful embroidered sheets that have been made in South Sudan for generations. I’ve often thought about what I would bring if I was forced to flee my home like they were. The fact that the milayas are both so useful (they’re used to carry things), beautiful, and useful as a business, made me fall in love with them.
As a journalist you hear so many heartbreaking stories. Often we hope that what we produce will shed light on these situations and ultimately improve them. But realistically that could be a long time in the future. When I left I bought a couple of milayas, and would display them after the story was published in National Geographic. Everyone wanted to buy one and there was a huge interest on social media. It was such an obvious market and we had no excuse to not supply it. And so the Milaya Project was born.
How did you come to work with South Sudanese refugees in Uganda?
Nora: The first time I went to Uganda in 2015 I discovered that the country was taking in as many refugees as the whole European Union. I became eager to do a story on Bidibidi, which in 2016 became the world’s biggest refugee camp (it was surpassed by the Rohingya crisis in 2017). Following the everyday life of the South Sudanese women could clearly show the effect of years of civil war on families.
Nina: I had reported from South Sudan before the war and was thrilled when Nora pitched a story about the refugee crisis to National Geographic. After she did her first project on milayas we went back together to investigate how the camp was developing into a long-term city. While it had growing infrastructure, what it really needed was commerce and industry to provide jobs and fuel an economy.
Tell us about these women! How are they directly impacted by The Milaya Project?
Nina & Nora: The women in Bidibidi are keeping the tradition of the milayas alive by meeting in small groups and teaching each other beautiful embroidered patterns. But few can afford to buy milayas in Bidibidi and even fewer can afford to get their products to bigger cities.
When photographing the women of Bidibidi refugee camp in front of the milayas they were so proud to show off off their handiwork. The patterns were memories from home and a connection to their culture. This is something they learned from their mothers and grandmothers; it’s a part of their history and future, once they teach it to their children. Many of these women were too busy taking care of children and the house to find a job, but they would always do embroidery on the side.
By providing an online platform through The Milaya Project we can give them an income that we know they’ll invest back into their business and community. There’s been so much research on how effective it is to have a female breadwinner in the household—less money is wasted and more goes toward education and raising healthy children. Selling just one milaya can pay for more than a year of school expenses for a child.
Starting a nonprofit is no easy task. What were some of the first steps you took to launch?
Nina & Nora: First of all we had to confirm that there was a population out there willing to buy them. We launched an Instagram account and connected with the people who’d originally asked us how to purchase the sheets after the story came out in National Geographic. There are no NGOs helping get these products to market, so we started by launching a nonprofit in Sweden (where Nora is based), and then we built a website and launched an Instagram to reach potential customers. To make our Kickstarter stand out as much as possible we had colleagues at National Geographic create a really wonderful video about he project, shoot the prototype pillowcases, and help us get the word out there.
Photos by Liz Calka
The hand-embroidered textiles are beautiful! Tell us about the products you currently sell and what you will be offering in the future.
Nina & Nora: The first milayas we saw had one or two big embroidered patterns on bed sheets ranging from plain white to neon green or pink. In the camp, they’re often hung up for church service on Sundays or used at weddings and funerals. Some are so elaborate they can take weeks if not months to finish. So, they’re a special occasion item, which makes it difficult to sell them in the Ugandan markets.
We wanted more people to experience milaya decor, so asked which patterns could be made to fit a pillowcase and had those made during our visit last September. When we go back we’ll start supplying them with high-quality, local fabrics and threads; sewing tools; and a clean working environment. We plan to keep making pillowcases, small wall hangings, and also to continue with the larger patterns for bedspreads. In the future the patterns look amazing on the back of a jacket—which Nora had made, too!
What change do you hope to see in these refugee camps and the lives of these creators in the coming years?
Nina & Nora: First of all we want women to continue using embroidery as a way to socialize and also keep their traditions from South Sudan alive. Right now the living conditions in Bidibidi are really difficult. Each family receives food rations, but it’s not enough, and without a job they have no money to buy even basic items like toiletries. We hope that the Milaya Project will give them a stable income to become more independent, send their children to school, and be able to afford basics like food, soap, and clothes. We also noticed that their embroidery is not taken seriously as a business by men in the camp. Once people see how these women artisans are making money we hope they start to feel more respected.
Where do you see The Milaya Project in 5 years? 10 years?
Nina & Nora: We’re already collaborating with local women’s collectives who are extremely efficient and motivated. So we actually hope that our presence won’t actually be necessary in the future! The product is already great—we just have to make sure they have the material and time to work on it. We will provide a platform for producers and consumers to meet. It’s so gratifying to receive pictures of people who’ve bought a milaya and covered their bed or hung it on a wall in their home. It’s wonderful to see how the tradition of the South Sudanese women is spreading across the globe and we hope it will continue.
What is something you hope every reader learns about The Milaya Project and the people involved?
Nina & Nora: We live in a global world and it’s so important to learn more about each other and what we have in common. It’s so cool to see people comment on Instagram that the milayas remind them of the embroidery their grandmothers used to do. We all have traditions that have been passed down over generations, and we must make sure they’re not forgotten.