Sewing to save lives in a battle that concerns us all

Refugee women in Poland are refusing to stand by helplessly in the face of COVID-19 but producing masks to protect the whole community

Gdansk 21.05.2020 Ms. Khedi Alieva (left), Marianna Zubko (center) and Aminat( right) are members of group Fundacja Kobiety Wedrowne “Women on the Road Foundation” sewing protective masks in order to support local community and hospitals during Covid-19 outbreak. Photo: Maciej Moskwa/ TESTIGO/ UNHCR

The war widows of Chechnya know what it means to lose loved ones. So when Khedi Alieva and her sister Aminat Zhabrailova learnt that people were dying en masse in Italy and Spain because of COVID-19, they swung into action to save lives.

Together with their women’s group Fundacja Kobiety Wędrowne (“Women on the Road Foundation”), the Chechen sisters got behind their sewing machines and started making protective masks and overalls.

To date, the women, based in the Polish city of Gdańsk, have sewn 27,000 masks for doctors, nurses and others in the wider community. As of 26 May, Poland had 21,631 cases of coronavirus and 1,007 deaths.

“We Chechens have seen a lot of death,” says Khedi. “When I heard how people were dying in Italy and Spain, I couldn’t sleep. I thought, ‘are we again going to see helpless people dying?’ Aminat said, ‘we will sew day and night’. So that is how we started making masks.”

The sisters have been in Poland for seven years, with permission to stay on humanitarian grounds. They are hoping for full refugee status. They came with their children, who are now grown up.

“I have more free time now because the kids are grown up. I need to help others, otherwise I will not survive myself,” says Khedi, an energetic 49-year-old.

Khedi had a hard time when she first came to Poland. She was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, hardly surprising in someone from a country that has twice been at war in the last 25 years.

Back in Chechnya, Khedi was a teacher but in Poland she was initially limited to cleaning, catering and care jobs. She started out in Warsaw but moved to Gdańsk, where the late, liberal Mayor Paweł Adamowicz created an island of tolerance and welcome to outsiders. “There is a special atmosphere here,” she says.

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Khedi inclined towards feminism. Now she runs seminars for students on the subject of discrimination and co-authors academic articles. Her sister Aminat, 50, is quieter and more traditional but highly skilled. In Chechnya, Aminat was in demand as a fashion designer. “She made clothes for rich people,” says Khedi proudly.

The two sisters got together with Polish psychologist and educationalist Dr. Dorota Jaworska to set up the Women on the Road Foundation, which has branches not only in Gdańsk but also in Warsaw and in a centre for asylum seekers in the town of Grupa.

“In our troika, Aminat is the hands, Dorota is the brain and you could say I am the motor,” says Khedi. “I could not do anything without the others.”

The Gdańsk group now has about a dozen members, mainly from post-Soviet countries. The point of the group was to talk about women’s issues, while sewing was just a side activity. But when the COVID-19 crisis struck, the women realised they had to do something practical.

The initial idea was to provide masks for the elderly, who appear to be more vulnerable to the coronavirus than the young, but the project soon grew into something bigger.

In Gdańsk, the women have set up a workshop in the library of a school, closed due to the lockdown. They have also sent 10 sewing machines to women in the asylum seekers’ centre in Grupa. They used their own funds to buy the first batches of cloth.

Now they are making not only masks but also overalls and supplying the Medical University of Gdańsk. Khedi and Aminat’s sons, Dzakhar, 23, and Asleddin, 18, help by cutting out pieces for stitching. Dzakhar even left his job in a kebab shop in order to get involved.

The whole community stands to benefit. “If old people or others from the community come in wanting masks, we hand them out for free and tell them to give them to their neighbours too,” says Khedi, who was concerned that masks were being traded at rip-off prices.

The women could perhaps go into business but for now, that does not seem to be their aim. “We are not in this to make a profit,” says Khedi. “We just want to show a good example of how people with different cultures, religions and worldviews can live and work together in harmony, solidarity and equality.”

They asked local businesses to help with materials and volunteers to distribute the finished product, and were stunned by the response. Some locals supported the women by bringing them food.

The workshop is strewn with cloth in many colours. The medical masks are plain white or turquoise but the women are also sewing more fashionable masks to attract the young – in black, yellow, camouflage, spots and traditional Polish floral patterns.

Marianna Zubko, 50, who fled the war in eastern Ukraine, was attending sewing classes anyway, so she was quick to volunteer when the opportunity arose to put her skills to good use in the health crisis. Her daughter Tanya, 17, a fashion student, has been helping with the sewing and her son Pavel, 24, a photographer, has been packing and delivering masks.

“I have been friends with Khedi and Aminat for a long time,” says Marianna. “When I saw their Facebook post about making masks, I was eager to join and, as it happened, available too. It is mandatory to wear masks in public now, so there is a great need for them. I feel a sense of satisfaction that I am doing something useful.”

“This is an epidemic, and it affects all of us,” says Khedi. “Today, we breathe, tomorrow we might get sick.”

Women who come from war zones are no strangers to death. Their experience has given them a strong will to live and determination to make the most of life.