“I Felt I Was Walking With Them” – a story about creating refugee dolls

“Migration is an expression of the human aspiration of dignity, safety and a better future. It is a part of the social fabric, part of our very make-up as a human family.”  Ban Ki-moon, Eighth Secretary General of the UN

Children come to the U.S. from nearly all the countries of the world.  The UNHCR reports that all 50 states have welcomed refugees to their communities. One Lebanese-American woman now living in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, welcomes refugee children to her home state through creating dolls like them. 

Jeanne Trabulsi herself is a migrant having lived and studied in many cultures. She was born of Lebanese parents in Japan, moved to the U.S, traveled to study modern Arab history as an international student in her country of ancestry, Lebanon, then came back to the U.S.  

“My heart breaks for the Arabs. I love the Arabs.  Lebanon used to be the ‘breathing lung of the Arab world'”.  She credits Lebanese journalist Rami Khouri with that description of her home and heritage. But today it is not a country she can return to safely. The last time she was there she was a young woman and it was 1972.  But she’s followed the struggle of Arab refugees and refugee movements across the globe. 

She remembers, as a girl, that she traveled easily back and forth between Damsacus and Beruit. “I went all the time. It was a 4-hour drive.” Since the start of the long war in Syria, families have fled along that same route – the UNHCR reports that today 1.5 million Syrian refugees have fled from their homes for haven in Lebanon.  Jeanne told me, “I felt I was walking with them.”

As she sought to find a way to offer something of value to refugee children, she thought of dolls.  She created the Refugee Doll Project to tell children and their families who make it to the United State that they are welcome here.  And she wanted to raise awareness and appreciation of refugees among long-term residents of the U.S.

How It Works

Jeanne dresses 18″ dolls that she purchases.  She works with Rosalie Croft, a seamstress in Canada best known as Grammie Rose, who sews the dolls’ clothes.   Here’s a link to Grammie Rose’s Doll Clothes. Jeanne selects clothes that children from different cultures might wear to school in the U.S.  I understand Jeanne’s desire to not dress the dolls in traditional outfits.  From talking to newcomer kids of many ages, I often hear that they just want to fit in.  But some kids feel best by naturally dressing in two cultures and Jeanne seeks to capture that desire in her dolls. For instance she has created a doll named Maryam who’s wearing a jumper like a lot of girls might wear to school in the U.S., and also a hijab.

How to Dress a Doll

Grammie Rose’s actual patterns are available on the Refugee Doll Project site. Jeanne encourages people to know what countries are most represented by refugees in their own communities and to dress dolls that newcomer children might identify with and see themselves in. Here are Grammie Rose’s patterns and instructions to sew a new refugee doll’s clothes. They include patterns for mid-calf skirts, t-shirts, skull cap, and basic pants for your doll. 

Books for Your Doll

Maybe the most valuable resource on the site is Books for Your Doll.  Of course dolls need books. Jeanne consulted with Kirsten Cappy and Anne Sibley O’Brien of I’m Your Neighbor Books, an organization that features children’s literature about newcomers to the U.S. and school and community-based activities around books to help people meet each other. Jeanne said,  “Dolls are the symbol [of welcoming].  Books are the heart and soul.” Jeanne has created dolls featuring the characters of some I’m Your Neighbor Books, My Name is Sangoel by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago and Rafael Yockteng, and My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits and Gabi Swiatkowska. In My Name if Yoon, Yoon enters school in the U.S. There she comes to learn she does not have to let go of her beloved name written in Korean to be able also to re-imagine it in her new English language. Jeanne described to me how children read to their dolls in library and school programs. As the children read stories such as Yoon’s to their new dolls, they’ll experience that first imagining of the vast journeys refugees and immigrants take to make a place feel like it could be their home.

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