Once an Alfred University ceramic engineering graduate, Neslihan Jevremovic now works as entrepreneur, humanitarian, teaching refugees ancient skills of rug weaving
Neslihan Christobel Jevremovic (Cabiakman) graduated from Alfred University in 1978 with a Bachelor’s Degree in ceramic engineering, and she worked for eight years as an engineer after graduating, both in her native Turkey and in the United States.
These days, however, she is making her mark in business and in international humanitarian service as an expert and entrepreneur in the ancient craft and art of rug weaving. She and her former husband, George Jevremovic – the nephew of the late Alfred University Professor Emeritus Savo Jevremovic, and his wife, Bea -- founded Woven Legends in the 1980’s, a company based in the Philadelphia area and dedicated to reviving traditional rug weaving with handspun wool and natural dyes.
In 2012, as tens of thousands of Syrians fled their country and became refugees in eastern Turkey, Neslihan Jevremovic dedicated the organization to teaching rug weaving skills to Syrian women living in a refugee camp in Adiyaman, Turkey. Currently, this Woven Legends initiative, operating as Anka Cooperative, works with 250 Syrian refugees, teaching them the ancient craft of rug weaving. Jevremovic’s goal is to empower 20,000 refugees, primarily women, by the year 2020.
The move from ceramic engineering to rug weaving may sound more like a 180-degree change of life, instead of a professional transition. Actually, Jevremovic says, she excelled at the “people skills” necessary for building an organization like Anka even when she was a practicing engineer.
“In ceramic engineering, I understood things,” she says. “I was strong in communicating about technical details, but my real strengths came into play when I became involved in relationships between people.”
It was George Jevremovic, now her former husband and a 1977 graduate of Alfred University, who initially became fascinated with the subject of traditional rug weaving while he was teaching in Turkey, after graduating from Alfred University. He and Neslihan, who had been born and raised in Istanbul, married and moved back to the U.S. in1980. Neslihan started working for Tam Ceramics while her husband, as founder of Woven Legends, began getting the business off the ground. Woven Legends imported Turkish rugs and required extensive communications with Turkish government officials – that latter challenge turned out to be one of Neslihan’s skills.
“Then it just kind of grew,” she says. “I got involved in the running of the production and administration. He was involved in creation of the rugs and marketing. He became the face of the company.”
These days, Neslihan is the face both of Woven Legends and Anka Cooperative. The cooperative partners with Oz-Kent, a Turkish company and exclusive producer of exquisite lines of handmade rugs for Woven Legends since 1986. The Woven Legends/Oz-Kent rugs are heirloom quality crafts – Jevremovic calls them “antiques of tomorrow.” In 1986, she says, the governor of Adiyaman province approached Woven Legends, seeking help in teaching rug weaving to girls in his region of Eastern Turkey. In 2012, Jevremovic decided to expand that service to Syrian refugees, and in 2016 she cofounded Anka Cooperative using the basic Turkish Educational ministry apprenticeship model developed 25 years earlier.
Working together, Woven Legends and Anka Cooperative now operate six workshop tents in the Adiyaman refugee camp, with 69 looms and more than 200 active weavers. Woven Legends also has started a second weaving project in the Harran, Urfa refugee camp, with 13 looms and 25 weavers. Jevremovic says teaching practical and employable skills, such as rug weaving, is a vital response to the extraordinary refugee crisis that began with the Syrian Civil War. The United Nations estimates the refugee population in eastern Turkey has grown to nearly three million since the war began in 2011.
“Teaching these women a vocation,” she says, “empowers them beyond making money. It gives them a career and power over their lives. They have been eager to cooperate.”
She adds the rug weaving culture is embedded deeply in the history of Turkey. “Traditionally, weavers who work outside of their homes are all young, unmarried women in their teens. Once they get married, 99 percent do not weave any longer. If they do weave, it is in the western part of Turkey. Because of this turnover, we always have the need for a fresh new pool of young weavers and we are accustomed to teaching and training our weaving methods.”
As a cofounder of Anka, she used the traditional Turkish bird symbol, similar to the western Phoenix, as the icon to represent the potential for economic empowerment that rug weaving skills may provide refugees, particularly women, streaming into eastern Turkey.
“The Phoenix is rising!” Anka says on its website. The organization is busy raising funds so that it can expand its educational services to the growing refugee population. And Neslihan Jevremovic has added fund raising to the people skills at which she excels –going back all the way back to her days as a ceramic engineer.
To learn more about Anka Cooperative, visit www.ankacoop.org
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