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Afghan and Iranian entrepreneurs team up to fight coronavirus in Iran


Afghan and Iranian entrepreneurs team up to fight coronavirus in Iran

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a former Afghan refugee and his Iranian business partner switch from making high-fashion suits to producing hospital gowns and masks
30 April 2020
Afghan and Iranian tailors at Arshak, a men's clothing company, make masks and gowns as part of efforts to counteract COVID-19 in Esfahan, Iran.

The sound of rattling sewing machines bounces off the walls of the factory, as desk after desk of workers measure and cut large sheets of blue fabric. The workers move quickly, sewing together the fabric into masks and hospital gowns.

Just over a month ago, the same workers were tailoring high-fashion suit jackets and trousers for Arshak – a men’s clothing brand with outlets in a number of cities. The factory's production line has since been repurposed to contribute to the COVID-19 efforts in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Ali Jafari, 45, the co-owner of the factory and a former refugee, walks amidst the scraps of fabric strewn on the floor, checking on the progress of his workers. Their goal is to produce some 800 hospital gowns every day for doctors and nurses working in Esfahan, one of the cities the most affected by the coronavirus outbreak in Iran.

“For the first time in 15 years, I come to the office in the early morning to sew side-by-side with my workers instead of doing paperwork, in order to produce more masks and hospital gowns,” says Ali. “It feels good to be able to contribute to the fight against the coronavirus in Iran.”

Out of the 220 workers employed by Arshak – refugees and Iranians alike – only 60 workers continue coming to the factory in order to ensure production of a total of 50,000 gowns and around 400,000 masks – certified by the Ministry of Health – as essential protective equipment for doctors and nurses.

As COVID-19 has spread through all 31 provinces of the country, the Government of Iran has had to take measures to try limit the spread of the virus by increasing social distancing and reducing – and sometimes closing – business operations, like elsewhere in the world. As a result, many thousands in Iran, refugees included, have lost their main source of income and livelihoods.

The socio-economic impact of COVID-19 has especially been felt by those who rely on unstable and informal work. Complementing comprehensive national efforts, it is through the generous contributions of donors such as European Commission’s Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development (DEVCO), that in such challenging times the livelihoods of refugees can still be supported so that no one is left behind, in the spirit of the Global Compact on Refugees and international burden-sharing.

“During these difficult times, this is a way I can give back to other Afghans and the Iranian community that has hosted me.”

Ali, himself from a refugee family, knows how it is to struggle to make ends meet. This is why Arshak is providing a stipend to employees who have been asked to stay at home as a health precaution, until they are allowed to go back to work again. “During these difficult times, this is a way I can give back to other Afghans and the Iranian community that has hosted me.”

Ali arrived in Iran as an eight-year-old boy in the 1980s, when his widowed father made the heartbreaking decision to flee Jangan, their hometown near Herat in northwestern Afghanistan, with his seven young children and took refuge in Iran.

At the age of 10, after finishing school during the day, Ali worked in a textile shop learning to weave rugs and then to sew. By the time he was 17, he made his first foray into the business world by buying three sewing machines with his savings and starting a small workshop in his family’s basement making men’s suits, to contribute to the family’s expenses. As Ali’s skills and business grew, he sought to expand his operations. This is when he was put in touch with Seyed Mohammad Kasaie, a tailor and business owner in Esfahan.

The two became partners and expanded their business over the years. With support from UNHCR and its government counterpart, the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants’ Affairs (BAFIA), the ingenious and hardworking pair became even more successful, until they ultimately established Arshak. Today, Arshak is one of the most successful clothing factories in Iran and the region.

“This business that we do together has resulted in a sense of closeness... [we] have become a family.”

“It’s uplifting to see that two nationalities, Iranians and Afghans, work side by side as friends, learn from each other and gain experience. This business that we do together has resulted in a sense of closeness,” says Seyed Mohammad, now 74 years old. “Now, Ali, myself and our employees have become a family.”

Thanks to Iran’s generous and inclusive policies, refugees are able to participate in the local economy and can access work in a range of occupations. But at a time when Iran is facing additional economic pressures due to COVID-19 induced restrictions, vulnerable populations, including refugees, need more international support.

“Investing in refugee businesses and allowing them to stand on their own two feet is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. It is a win-win situation that can benefit both refugees and host communities and facilitate durable solutions by enhancing capacities of refugees who intend to return to their home country, should conditions allow,” said Ivo Freijsen, UNHCR Representative in Iran.