Nancy Strichman
Spotlight on Civil Society

Passing a Stress Test

A picture of a Kuchinate doll with a protective face mask, posted recently on Facebook to assure supporters that the women of the collective are safe and well. In addition to products such as baskets, poufs, handmade dolls, and rugs, Kuchinate recently added cloth face masks to its list of products. Spring, 2020. (Courtesy of Kuchinate)

My daughter’s dolls have been making the best out of a challenging situation. In their virtual world, they are often stuck at home, but at other times, they have had grand adventures — donning goggles and bathing caps for an outing to a swimming pool, or packing overflowing suitcases for trips to far off lands. Now they’re heading back to school, with facemasks ready.

Over the past few months, I’ve watched in awe as my youngest daughter coaches her dolls and tends to their every need, finding a way to comfort herself during all of this upheaval. It is a skillset that is especially useful now. These days, all of us have learned more than we would like about our default for handling stressful situations. Just like my daughter’s daily check-in with her dolls, we have been encouraged to monitor ourselves. With our routines still in disarray, we have to take note of our emotions, making sure to process and move forward so we can better care for the people who need us.

Co-directors Dr. Diddy Mymin Kahn,and Sister Aziza Kidane with the artist, Mia Schon, as well as volunteers and members of the Kuchinate collective. The “We Were All Once Refugees,” a 3.5-meter high multi-colored mosaic was displayed on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, and is one of the many examples of collaborative exhibitions with artists over the years. Winter, 2018. (Courtesy of Kuchinate)

And of course, many of the nonprofits that we love are also taking their own stress tests these days. One NGO already well-acquainted with dealing with all sorts of stressors is Kuchinate, an economic and psycho-social collective that works with women, primarily from Eritrea and Sudan. The members of Kuchinate, which means ‘crochet’ in the Eritrean language of Tigrinya, are some of the most vulnerable women in the refugee and asylum seekers community.

Samha, a member of Kuchinate, is featured with her handmade baskets, holding her son . Winter, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90).

Back in 2011, Dr. Diddy Mymin Kahn, an Israeli clinical psychologist, and Eritrean nun Sister Aziza Kidane were involved in efforts to help refugees arriving in large numbers in South Tel Aviv. Too many of the women had terrible stories to tell – often involving instances of human trafficking, torture and sexual violence. Yet these women were reluctant to speak openly about their trauma, and efforts to get them to participate in conventional therapy, so common in Western culture, did not work.

Questions that have become so familiar to all of us now during these scary times were posed back then – What takes us out of our isolation, anxiety or grief? What can make us feel more grounded when we are cut off from our usual network of support? The answers to these questions eventually evolved into Kuchinate.

Eden Gebre (left), Quality Control Manager at Kuchinate, is one of the community leaders responsible for training new members of the collective in crochet patters. Lina Otom Jak Agolon (right), the Shop & Studio Manager, is also participating. Winter, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The first step, Dr. Kahn recalls, was experimenting with art and handicrafts as a therapeutic tool, settling on crocheting storage baskets, something entirely familiar and reminiscent of home.

As the women gathered to crochet, conversations began and struggles were shared. With Dr. Kahn and Sister Aziza carrying out an informal type of group counseling, the women began to see that they were not alone in their heartbreak. They started to speak more openly of their own challenges, part of a process that helps in relieving stress and in finding a path moving forward. Soon their handmade baskets began selling on the marketplace, turning a source of solace also into a welcome source of income.

A party with the women of Kuchinate and their children to celebrate the Christmas season. Winter, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Over the years, the Kuchinate workshop has become a place for hundreds of women from the asylum- seeking community in South Tel Aviv to congregate, to crochet baskets, to hear their own languages spoken, and to prepare foods like injera that recall memories of home, all while their children wander freely, charming visitors. The workshop has earned a stop on packed travel itineraries for groups, both from Israel and abroad, which come for the crochet workshops, the traditional coffee ceremonies, and the stories that the women share of their journeys. And since the women here are particularly well-accustomed to uncertainty, Kuchinate adjusted quickly during the lockdown. With the women working primarily from home, online sales of their products continue and they are gearing up for a return as restrictions ease.

Visitors from the Jewish Federation of Great Washington, hosted at Kuchinate by one of its long-time supporters, Julie Fisher. Fall, 2019. (Courtesy of Kuchinate).
Asmeret Haray (left), the Event Coordinator and Childcare Director at Kuchinate ,with Orly Heilblum, who interned with Kuchinate as part of her Glocal MA at Hebrew University, pictured at Molet Design Institute- a supporter of Kuchinate. Fall, 2019. (Courtesy of Kuchinate)

With the collective efforts of the co-directors Dr. Kahn and Sister Aziza, a devoted circle of supporters and the women of the asylum-seeking community themselves, Kuchinate has become an important refuge of hope and understanding for so many over the years. Its sustainability is a testament to the resilience of its members and of their ability to draw strength from each other when so much about their lives is unsettled.

There is little that is predictable in the lives of the refugees, as many are single mothers, most are in economically precarious situations, and all of them are waiting for better news regarding governmental policies towards asylum seekers. No one can promise magic solutions. And no one can guarantee there won’t be more suffering.

But Kuchinate is a place where everyone who shows up can get an easy reminder of how to be compassionate to themselves and to others. After all, the original meaning of compassion is a combination of the Latin words ‘to suffer’ and ‘with.’ Kuchinate, in recalling its origin story, is also a reminder that there is always something to do, some way to jump in to relieve suffering when you see it, some way to find your own resilience.

Abrehet Gebrezgbher is a member of Kuchinate, having arrived from Eritrea six years ago. Winter, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Hadas Hagos, a member of Kuchinate, posing with her handmade dolls. Last winter the women began creating dolls with the help of Laura Lee Burch, a dollmaker and artist in Tel Aviv. Spring, 2019. (Courtesy of Kuchinate)

One of the more recent additions to the Kuchinate list of products is their line of dolls – dolls that resemble them, outfitted in bright African fabrics, which offer a very particular type of self-expression for the women. It’s a service to their own children and to all of us. Now, especially when it feels more than ever that we are just making things up as we go along, make-believe play can be particularly valuable in imagining a better future.

And we know what happens when children have dolls for creative play – they are able to soothe themselves so they can comfort others. We can all take note. Of course, my daughter reminds me of this regularly. I can hear her now gently tucking her dolls into bed, preparing them for tomorrow’s big day at school. “It will be okay…” she tells them. “You are strong, you can do this.”

About the Author
Dr. Nancy Strichman teaches graduate courses in evaluation and strategic thinking at the Hebrew University’s Glocal program, a masters degree in International Development. Her research has focused on civil society, specifically on shared society NGOs and gender equality in Israel. She lives in Tivon, Israel with her four children and her very patient husband.
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