This Refugee Champions Sustainability Through Her Intricate Jewelry And Fashion

This Refugee Champions Sustainability

Through Her Intricate Jewelry And Fashion

Céline Semaan is committed to new aesthetics and new narratives. She is compelled by the need to humanize and embed our world with a palpable sense of empathy. It’s no wonder considering that before the age of five Semaan had been displaced to a new country because of a war in her home country. She grew up in Lebanon. But violence forced a move to Montreal. Later, she was able to return to Beirut with her family. War defined her world view and instilled in her a deep desire for change, something she knows the world cannot survive without. Little did she know then that fashion and design would be one of the ways she would begin to craft that change.

She describes herself as a hyper-active kid who “grew up dancing and entertaining adults; putting on plays and shows for them; and have always enjoyed being on stage.” Her favorite toy was a Fisher Price guitar which allowed you to record your voice on K7 tapes. “My friends and I would record radio shows on there for hours. It was just the best. In Montreal, we were in Québecois Native American summer camps where we learned chants, legends, songs and was very inspired by nature, the spirit of Mother Earth and a deep respect for the environment.”

The collections Celine creates are made sustainably with important causes at the heart of the process

Semaan says her love for fashion definitely came from her mom who she loved watching get ready to go out, doing her make-up and choosing that to wear. She describes her mom and her aunts as “masters of everything Middle-Eastern beauty rituals,” always braiding their hair and dressing up impeccably no matter what. When Semaan turned thirteen, she and her family moved back to Lebanon. “So I got to be a teen-ager there, and wearing kohl on our eyes, which is the equivalent of smoky eyes, and shawls and scarves have always been a cultural thing for me. My grandpa collects vintage Phoenician jewelry and fossils, and I viewed them as treasures!”

As a child, she dreamed of being an astronaut, of going to space, of seeing the universe. She describes herself as having a genuine love for the Earth and the idea of watching it from space struck her as the most amazing thought ever. But, she says, she was terrible at math and her teacher told her that because of that she would, she explains, “Never be an astronaut” (to be said in a slow motion voice).” After moving back to Lebanon, her astronaut dreams drifted and she decided that she wanted to be an Ambassador. “I wanted to throw parties and reconcile any party that is at war with one another.”

Being back in Lebanon, she witnessed the cost of war on both the environment and human-rights and says it marked her for life. “Ever since that day, I dedicated my time, my work, and my skills to support causes related to either human-rights or the environment.” Her first gig out of University was as a Community Lead for Creative Commons, a non-profit devoted to open licenses, where her work was around advocating for access to information, open knowledge, and the open web. It’s a cause she deeply believes in to this day.

Slow Factor collaboration with Camille D. Jewelry funding Best Bees

At that time, NASA had joined Creative Commons and released their images as open data. And then, she says, “Something in me lit up.” It took a few years before she did anything with the images as she was also working as an Interaction Designer and designing interfaces for companies. Then one day she tweeted, “Wouldn’t it be nice to wrap yourself with the world and the universe and stop killing each other?”

She got such a wonderful support on Twitter, that she decided to make it a reality. “I sort of began the project as a side project where my passion for art, fashion, science, and NASA would come together.” She knew very little about manufacturing or running an e-commerce site. She began researching sustainable ways to print the images as she didn’t want to print them on anything “that might hurt the Earth or people in the process,” she explains. That is how her journey in sustainable fashion truly began. “Our first collections sold out quickly; our work went viral a few times; and, fast forward almost six years later; we have expanded our work in jewelry now and looking into apparel too.

Slow Factor collaboration with Camille D. Jewelry funding Best Bees

She designs under the label she created called Slow Factory, which she defines as an “independent label working at the intersection of Fashion and Activism.” The collections she creates are made sustainably with important causes at the heart of the process. “We team up with NGOs and help raise their voices and their missions. We create pieces that raise funds and awareness for causes we believe in, mainly around environmental rights and human rights.” Her collections have supported the work of a variety of organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund and UNICEF.

Semaan has also collaborated with ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid). As part of her work with them, she went to refugee camps to work with displaced youth. When she did, she brought some of her Slow Factory scarves with her. “Our USA by Night, New York by Night – our entire Cities by Night collection – and let the girls play models with them. Watching them wrapping themselves with cities they dream of going to filled them with so much hope. That was the most beautiful moment.”

Slow Factor collaboration with Camille D. Jewelry funding Best Bees

Still, Semaan experiences challenges in her work every day, constantly actually. “Sometimes, I realize I am a challenge to my own self. Like I self-sabotage myself all the time, thinking I don’t deserve something I have worked so hard to achieve.”

Other challenges she has faced and continue to face are issues around sexism and racism. “I can’t believe that in 2018, I am faced with racism because I am Arab,” Semaan says. “Being treated as less than, trying so hard to fit in a small box that is not meant for me. Working twice as hard to get a seat at the table, or simply dressing up extra modest not to be considered a snack or patronized because of my femininity. Prejudice and privilege hurt minorities who have suffered trauma, and displacement, and yet have to fight harder to achieve and make their dreams come true.” But, she says, every single hardship she faces shows her how strong and focused she truly is.

And people’s reactions to her work at Slow Factory has certainly proven her pursuits to be both  worthwhile and desperately needed. She is grateful to read people’s emails about, “when they get to wrap themselves with the Universe. I get emails about how it connected them with a lost one, or when people get to wrap themselves with parts of the world they have lived, or have a loved one there.”

Jenny Block

JENNY BLOCK is a frequent contributor to a number of publications from Huffington Post to Playboy, and is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Solo Sex, and O Wow: Discovering Your Ultimate Orgasm.

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