On their way from South Sudan to Uganda refugees walked for days or weeks carrying embroidered sheets, decorated with swirls of flowers, trees, and animals. Before the war these milayas were used for dowries and celebrations, but now, after years of violence, they held the refugees’ last possessions.
In a sprawling refugee camp in Uganda, National Geographic photographer Nora Lorek asked residents what they’d brought from home when fighting broke out in 2016. “Nothing,” one woman replied, “except for some clothes wrapped in my bedsheet.” When Lorek asked around, more women retrieved their milayas, posing for portraits that were featured in the magazine.
The civil war in South Sudan has displaced more than two million people. Today, in Bidibidi, the second largest refugee camp in the world, women continue to sew milaya. They’re hung at church on Sundays, and decorate funerals and weddings.
South Sudanese businesswomen Rose Asha and Rose Jaun both run collectives with hundreds of refugee women sewing milayas in Bidibidi. They have business plans, but no transportation, supplies, or buyers in the remote camp.
The Milaya Project is a non-profit founded by Nora Lorek and National Geographic writer Nina Strochlic. It connects South Sudanese refugees with customers who want to support the traditional art form. All profits go to helping the women’s collectives scale-up their businesses.