Finding modern outlets for an ancient skill. Interior designer who helped Afghan women make use of their genius for embroidery

A little over a year ago, Mary Garland got the feeling it was time to do something different with her life. Her interior design business was doing fine, and her red farmhouse on a wooded country lane in this charming little town was as comfortable as ever. But something was lacking.

``As the years went on,'' says the tall, outgoing Mrs. Garland, ``the idea of spending the rest of my life picking out luxurious fabrics for wealthy clients waned a bit.'' Her husband had died a couple of years earlier, and her five children were spread near and far. With some trepidation, she thought about applying to the Peace Corps.

Then she got a call from Clare Smith, president of Aid to Artisans (ATA), a Connecticut-based agency dedicated to helping craftspeople in various parts of the world find expanded markets for their products.

In partnership with the international aid organization Save the Children Federation Inc., based in Westport, Conn., ATA was attempting to develop a handicraft industry among the Afghan refugees in northern Pakistan. Embroidering, a skill Garland knew well, would be the heart of the effort. Mrs. Smith asked if Garland would be willing to serve for a few months as on-site coordinator of the project.

``I was thrilled,'' Garland says. But, she admits, she had only the vaguest idea of what might lie ahead.

Last February she flew to Karachi, then on to Islamabad - then took a bumpy, dusty truck ride to Mansehra, about 100 miles from the Afghan border. The natural environment - sheer mountain peaks on all sides - was awe-inspiring.

But the human surroundings were ``something else,'' she says. The thatched mud huts of the refugee camps, with an occasional tent mixed in, stretched for miles.

More distressing than the living conditions, which in some cases may not have been that different from what villagers were used to in Afghanistan, was the mental anguish. Displaced, disrupted, tragedy-touched lives were everywhere.

The majority were rural folk, who for generations tended herds and fields. Now, Garland comments, ``nothing that they did in their daily lives can they do now - it's just sheer survival.''

Part of that survival is finding work, both for the income and the sense of usefulness. That's where the embroidery project of Aid to Artisans comes in. Garland's task was to seek out women in the camps who were experienced embroiderers and try to guide them toward projects that were likely to attract customers in the West.

She worked closely with the staff of the Save the Children field office and production center in Mansehra, which included many Afghans. Daily, she donned a flowing black chador and veil, as required of all women entering the camps.

The language and cultural barriers were steep. It wasn't long, however, before the tall American was being welcomed into homes as ``my mother, my sister.'' Tea was endlessly served, and samples of needlework and embroidery were laid before her.

``I determined they already had a wonderful vocabulary of stitches and designs,'' says Garland. ``It was not a question of technique - maybe just change the colors a bit to appeal to Western tastes.''

A breakthrough, of sorts, came when Save the Children's Stateside office sent out a call for Christmas ornaments to include in the organization's coming holiday catalog of craft products. Small, stuffed ornaments displaying the embroidery of the Afghan women seemed a natural. So Garland went to work.

``It felt a little bizarre going into mud huts filled with Muslim women, dangling a Christmas ornament before them,'' she says with a smile. She started by explaining a basic design and giving the women 100 little squares to embroider.

``Twelve came back like I wanted,'' she recalls. ``We gave them threads, and they'd either trade the threads or experiment with designs.... It became very clear - Afghans really don't like being told what to do.''

So she took a different tack. She gave them the colors and the threads and told them to ``do whatever you want.'' This time, she says, ``It was unbelievable what they turned out - things I'd never seen, that were just enchanting.''

What's doubly impressive, says Garland, is that this intricate work was being produced under such adverse circumstances - dimly lit, cramped work quarters and a demanding daily routine of wood gathering, child care, and cooking. All the embroidery, she explains, is done by eye and by counting threads.

The ornaments were a success with the people who decide what's marketable, and Save the Children put in an order for 10,000. The 450 Afghan embroiderers involved in the project are now ``sewing their fingers off'' to fill that order, says Garland.

The women are paid by the piece by Save the Children. Out of the $4 or so each ornament will cost in the United States, from 60 to 75 cents represent the wages paid the embroiderers, Garland explains. There are also salaries paid to the Afghan workers who stitch the pieces together and add tassles. Then there's the cost of shipping the pieces to the US and having them stuffed by a company here. Save the Children isn't likely to make a penny on the project, she says.

Having returned to the US in May, Garland is heartened that she had a hand in launching something that could give the refugees at least a somewhat better life. While there, she says, she could already see an improvement in the lives of families who were beginning to get some income from the project.

But there are problems. Thread is available locally in only a limited range of colors, and logistical problems make it important to rely on resources close at hand. Beyond that, there's the resentment caused by wives finding work when husbands can't.

Garland says her experience dissolves what she sees as the media-induced stereotype of Afghans as ``wild tribesmen.'' Many of those she worked with were ``extraordinary people,'' she affirms, often well educated - with a flare for poetry and art and a sense of humor that endures in spite of suffering.

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