The stylists worked their magic, snipping locks of hair and blowing out wide waves and curls. The women in the chairs at the Rizzieri Aveda School in Voorhees sat patiently, waiting for the payoff — the moment when they could look in the mirror and see the transformation.
And when that moment came, so did the smiles — both from the women and their stylists.
Volunteers from Cutler Salons, which operates four hair salons in New York City, recently made the trip to South Jersey to offer their services to 36 Syrian refugees in a daylong event hosted by two nonprofits, Fearless Beauty and CommUNITY SJP.
Heather Packer, the founder of New York-based Fearless Beauty, has worked since 2014 to teach hairstyling skills to women in India so they can earn a living. She said that, soon after starting the nonprofit, she turned her attention homeward.
"We started talking about what we could do here," she told the Courier-Post of Cherry Hill . "I know as a hairdresser how good a woman feels when she leaves a salon. It might seem superficial, but it gives a woman so much more than just a new look — it's a way to feel like she's seen and heard."
CommUNITY SJP co-founder Dr. Hafeza Shaikh said she was pleased to find that New Jersey has welcomed so many refugees from war-torn Syria, and wanted to do something to help them feel like they belong.
"I'm born here in New Jersey, but my parents emigrated here from India," said the Moorestown resident. "I found it very interesting that New Jersey has been able to help so many refugees, and there are so many communities that are willing to help them."
CommUNITY SJP, based in the South Jersey-Philadelphia region, offers outreach to refugees, homeless people and others in need regardless of religion or race; Shaikh, a cardiologist with Lourdes Health System, added that though their country has been torn apart by the six-year civil war, many Syrian refugees were once living peaceful, productive lives.
"A lot of them are educated, middle class people; their lives were turned around within a matter of weeks or months," she noted. "They came from very similar backgrounds to you and me, but they had to dramatically change their lives and come to a new country."
Despite a charged political atmosphere and anti-refugee rhetoric, Shaikh said most of those she encounters are happy to help. "There are a lot of people who understand it's ingrained in American culture to help people who need it, and so (CommUNITY SJP) focuses on the local level and doing things for people right here."
The 36 women gathered in Voorhees Sunday got more than just a new look: They also received gift bags from Fearless Beauty filled with hair, skin and makeup products, books and toys to take home for their children and a halal lunch with rice, kabobs and vegetables.
Elena Tavarez, Dottie Shannon and Rachel Bodt were among the 15 volunteers from Cutler's salons in Midtown Manhattan, SoHo and Brooklyn.
"I love doing anything that makes women feel good, feel empowered," said Bodt. "When we look good, we feel good — it's about uniting people."
Tavarez felt this was a contribution greater than signing a petition or writing a check to a charitable organization.
"I wanted to do something tangible for women, and this was a great opportunity," she said.
"One woman showed me the cut she wanted on a YouTube video. I taught her how to do a little hair-flip and thumbs up," Shannon laughed.
"Even with the language barrier, we can tell they're happy."
Mounera Ayoub, emerging from the stylist's chair with a fresh new cut, recalled a life in Syria that was "very comfortable, very happy."
When war came to their town outside of the capital of Damascus, Ayoub kept her children, now 15 and 10, home from school out of fear for their safety. Food and water became scarce. "We were all the time afraid," she remembered.
A teacher in her homeland, Ayoub is adjusting to life in the United States since arriving in October, practicing her English with a reporter and learning to drive with the help of a friend.
She loves her new home, especially the people. "It's so green here," Ayoub said. "The people ... the smiles!" she said, showing off her own wide grin.
Looking in the mirror after her cut and blow-dry, she said, "I wondered, who is this woman?"
"My favorite thing is the selfies they take with each other after they're finished," said Shaikh. "The smiles on their faces say so much."