Stitch by stitch, refugee women in Kenya craft new lives for themselves

Making a Difference, 26 December 2013

© UNHCR/S.Camia
In their sunny Nairobi workshop, refugee women in Heshima's Maisha Collective concentrate on turning out school uniforms.

NAIROBI, Kenya, 26 December 2013 (UNHCR) Lydia Umutoniwase fixes her gaze on a sewing machine as she prepares to thread a needle. She is deep in concentration, despite the chatter of women and whir of other machines surrounding her. To her left is a pile of colourful scarves freshly pressed and ready for sale.

Lydia, 19, is one of the more than two dozen young refugee women who form the Maisha Collective. The group makes and sells tie-dyed textiles and scarves, allowing the members to learn a trade and earn an income.

"Maisha" means "life" in Kiswahili, and Lydia says for the members it has indeed opened the door to a new existence in a new country.

"When I was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I didn't have hope. But now, my life has changed," she says softly in halting English, but with a wide smile.

The scarves are sold at craft fairs and stores in Nairobi and online. Since the collective began in 2009, it has sold thousands of scarves -- to people who live as far away as Canada, the United States and Europe. What the buyers do not see are the proud faces of the young women -- all refugees who arrived in Kenya as children or teenagers on their own and are now able to pay their own rent and put food on the table.

"What's happened with Maisha is that they can take care of themselves, instead of people doing things for them," says Hamdi Ali Abdi, the collective's project assistant. "They become more confident."

The group is run by Heshima Kenya, a nonprofit organization that provides education, vocational training, a safe house and other services to refugee children and adolescent girls who arrive in Kenya alone from countries such as Rwanda, South Sudan and Somalia.

Many have been raped by militias or by husbands in forced marriages; some arrive with children. The UN refugee agency works with non-government agencies like Heshima Kenya to help women and girls re-establish their lives and gain their independence. Empowering refugee women is one of UNHCR's Global Strategic Priorities.

"With the Maisha Collective, now I know how to sew, I can tie-dye... now I see I have a future, like others," says Lydia.

Dahabo Maow, a Somalia refugee, was the power behind the collective. She fled Somalia after fighting broke out in her town and joined Heshima in Nairobi.

"She had her leg amputated and she felt she was hopeless in life," says Alice Eshuchi, Heshima's Senior Program Manager. "Feeling that hopeless, she did not want to even learn how to read or write. She had lost her parents. She went to Kakuma refugee camp, where she was mistreated, and she could not receive the services that she required due to her disability. So when she came to Heshima, the management realized that she had an ability to learn a skill. So we enrolled her in training for tailoring and tie-dye."

Dahabo began teaching the other young women at Heshima how to sew and tie-dye. Soon after, the Maisha Collective was formed.

"They are building their leadership skills," Alice says. "The girls actually empower the others by teaching them what they know."

The members of the collective receive 8,000 Kenyan shillings (US$100) each month, as well as valuable lessons on budgeting so they can prepare for the future. But they also receive much more than money.

"They form a family connection," says Hamdi. "They feel that they are all connected somehow. They all sit around and start doing the tasseling and they will talk. It's easier than counseling."

Hamdi says they might not open up to her, "but when they're all sitting down and a girl is talking about losing her father, or being raped, the others can relate. They all open up, they all talk."

Lydia lost her parents, brothers and sisters as she fled Congo two years ago and to this day does not know whether they are dead or alive. The Maisha Collective has become her new community, her hope and her new life.

"I found other girls who have many problems like me," Lydia says. "I am so happy I found them. We are like sisters."

By Shirley Camia in Nairobi, Kenya




UNHCR country pages

Dadaab: World's Biggest Refugee Camp Turns 20

Last year, 2011, was the 20th anniversary of the world's biggest refugee camp - Dadaab in north-eastern Kenya. The anniversary is a reminder of the suffering of the Somali people, who have been seeking safety and shelter for two decades. UNHCR, which manages the Dadaab complex, set up the first camps there between October 1991 and June 1992. This followed a civil war in Somalia that in 1991 had culminated in the fall of Mogadishu and overthrow of the Siad Barre regime.

The original intention was for the three Dadaab camps to host up to 90,000 people. However today they host more than 463,000 people, including some 10,000 third-generation refugees born in Dadaab to parents who were also born there.

Last year's famine in Somalia saw more than 150,000 new arrivals, a third of the camp's current population. Overcrowding and stretched resources as well as security concerns have all had an impact on the camp, but UNHCR continues to provide life-saving assistance.

Dadaab: World's Biggest Refugee Camp Turns 20

The Nubians in Kenya

In the late 1880s, Nubians from Sudan were conscripted into the British army. The authorities induced them to stay in Kenya by granting them homesteads and issuing them British colonial passports. The Nubians named their settlement near Nairobi, Kibra, or "land of forest." In 1917, the British government formally declared the land a permanent settlement of the Nubians. Since independence, Kenyan Nubians have had difficulty getting access to ID cards, employment and higher education and have been limited in their travel. In recent years, a more flexible approach by the authorities has helped ease some of these restric¬tions and most adult Nubians have been confirmed as Kenyan citizens, but children still face problems in acquiring Kenyan citizenship.

The Nubians in Kenya

Somalia Emergency: Refugees move into Ifo Extension

The UN refugee agency has moved 4,700 Somali refugees from the outskirts of Kenya's Dadaab refugee complex into the Ifo Extension site since 25 July 2011. The ongoing relocation movement is transferring 1,500 people a day and the pace will soon increase to 2,500 to 3,000 people per day.

The refugees had arrived in recent weeks and months after fleeing drought and conflict in Somalia. They settled spontaneously on the edge of Ifo camp, one of three existing camps in the Dadaab complex, that has been overwhelmed by the steadily growing influx of refugees.

The new Ifo Extension site will provide tented accommodation to 90,000 refugees in the coming months. Latrines and water reservoirs have been constructed and are already in use by the families that have moved to this site.

Somalia Emergency: Refugees move into Ifo Extension

Return to SomaliaPlay video

Return to Somalia

Ali and his family are ready to return to Somalia after living in Dadaab refugee camp for the past five years. We follow their journey from packing up their home in the camp to settling into their new life back in Somalia.
Kenya: High Commissioner Visits Dadaab Refugee CampPlay video

Kenya: High Commissioner Visits Dadaab Refugee Camp

Last week the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres completed a visit to Kenya and Somalia where he met with the Presidents of the two countries, as well as Somali refugees and returnees.
Kenya: A Lifetime of WaitingPlay video

Kenya: A Lifetime of Waiting

Sarah was born and raised in Hagadera refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Now 21, she has become a wife and mother without ever setting foot outside the camp.