I first met Nader, 42, when KindWorks, a nonprofit I help lead, organized a welcome dinner for recently arrived refugees. Nader and his wife Rasha, 36, and their three children attended; they weren’t quite sure what to expect or how they would communicate with an excited crowd of nearly a hundred well-wishers. I asked Nader if he was having a good time; he nodded and smiled. As our halting conversation continued, mostly in sign language, Nader pulled out his phone and started showing me photos of gorgeous long gowns and elaborate wedding dresses. He had made these dresses himself in a factory he owned in Syria, and later in Egypt. Nader’s phone lit up in shades of blue, coral and pure white, as he flipped through bejeweled and beaded masterpieces. Now he was smiling broadly, enjoying the oohs and aahs around the table. I knew I needed to learn Nader’s story.
Nader and his family are originally from Homs, Syria. Nader had a lingerie business in Homs since 1995; he owned a factory that employed over 150 people. In 2011, the factory was destroyed, when fighting began between government and opposition forces.
In 2012, Nader and his wife and their three kids, ages 4, 8 and 10 at the time, fled to Egypt. Nader already had a small business there making wedding dresses. They had no intention of coming to the US, until a series of tragic events made it imperative. Nader suffered a heart attack and underwent bypass surgery in 2015; he also had serious issues with his business partner. They decided to apply for refugee status through UNHCR. After an almost two year process of security checks and interviews by several agencies, they were approved to travel to the US. They arrived in Washington D.C. a few days before President Trump signed the first Executive Order banning Syrian refugees.
Omama, 23, had thought she’d find ‘the one’ dress in a store, but she tried on dozens and it was hard to find something modest; plus the dresses were expensive for something she would wear only once, she said. The day after our KindWorks dinner with Nader, a nonprofit organzaiton called Mozaic posted photos of Nader’s dresses on their facebook page; Omama’s sister in law tagged her in the post, and Omama got in touch with Mozaic’s founder Raghad, who she’d known since she was young.
“It was a little risky, I don’t think a lot of brides would be like yeah one month before my wedding I’ll just have someone make my dress,” she laughs. “But it just felt like the right thing to do, especially with all the things happening in Syria and all over the world.” At the same time, Omama was looking for a capstone project for her Master’s degree in interactive journalism at American University. A wedding dress made by a Syrian refugee seemed perfect, for many reasons. She and Nader went fabric shopping at the end of March; Omama shared some pictures of dresses that she liked and Nader drew a pattern. In early April, Nader had to have heart surgery and needed time to recuperate. He also required a special industrial size machine to make the dress; several women donated to buy the mammoth 250 lb machine, which arrived three weeks before the wedding.
I went to meet Nader a few days before Omama’s wedding, in his two bedroom lower level apartment in a complex in Landover, MD, where many refugees live. Omama was there for her final fitting. She loved the dress, and asked Nader to cut some fabric from her matching hijab so it wouldn’t feel so heavy. He meticulously measured, cut, stitched, and ironed, on top of a prayer mat on the living room floor.
Omama tried on the dress for the very first time and posed in the living room light, turning this way and that, peering into a long mirror that Rasha was holding. The dress was beautiful – slightly off white lace with delicate floral motifs and tiny pearls, a small trail, and lined long sleeves and high neckline, as requested. Omama looked stunning, with the radiant glow of a bride-to-be. She seemed pleased.
We chatted after she had changed back into jeans and a denim jacket; I wanted to know, of course, how she met her fiance. She giggles and tells me the story of how they first met when they were just 11 and 10 years old, making donation boxes at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), their neighborhood mosque in Sterling, VA. “I was a little diva at the time,” she says with a laugh, “and he’s had a crush on me ever since.” They reconnected in college, when they were volunteering with a Muslim youth camp; sparks rekindled, this time on both sides.
Omama and her fiance got married on April 14th in a vintage rustic style wedding that took place in a barn, an hour from her Northern Virginia home. The groom wore a light blue jacket with black lapels and a black bowtie. Omama looked stunning in her one-of-a-kind wedding dress. “Every aspect of the wedding was phenomenal,” says Raghad, “from the dress to the farm setting,” remarking on how the bride and groom departed from the lavish hotel style Middle Eastern weddings to one that was uniquely their own. “They’re like birds,” Raghad tells me. Birds?, I ask. “Yes, it’s a Syrian saying, they’re delicate, sweet, in love – like doves.”
“I’m very happy, very very happy,” Nader tells me when I ask him what it feels like to make his first wedding dress in the US. “If you take a blood test from me, you’ll see making dresses is in my blood,” he says in Arabic. “I feel like I’ve done something, even if it’s just a start.”
Nader’s goal is to have a wedding dress and lingerie factory in the US, just like he did in Syria. He hopes this dress is the first step in achieving that dream. “I came here not to rely on someone else, but to rely on myself and on my work,” he says.
Photos: George Kolotov
Mozaic, a nonprofit based in Virginia and run completely by volunteers, is supporting Nader’s dressmaking and tailoring efforts, and that of others like him. Please learn more about their work to help refugees and please donate to their efforts on their website: http://www.mozaicinc.org