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Refugee tailors switch to making face masks and protective gear

Kenya. Refugee tailors supply face masks in fight against COVID-19

Refugee tailors switch to making face masks and protective gear

Around the world, displaced artisans are stepping up a gear to supply face masks and protective equipment in desperately short supply.
27 April 2020
Refugee tailor Maombi Samil makes facemasks at his shop in Kenya's Kakuma camp. His is one of the many refugee-run businesses helping to fight COVID-19.

Nearly three weeks after Kenya confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on 13 March, the government issued a directive requiring everyone to wear facemasks in public places. Overnight, reusable fabric masks became the country’s most coveted accessory.

Maombi Samil, a 24-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who runs a fashion design and tailoring business in north-western Kenya’s Kakuma camp, realized that his skills could be put to a new use.

“There was a shortage of masks and I had seen samples of facemasks on the internet,” said Samil, who is professionally known as Designer Samir. “I wanted to use my talent and locally available fabric to show that we [refugees] can also contribute to the response to the pandemic and not just rely on assistance.”

"I wanted to use my talent and locally available fabric to show that we can also contribute to the pandemic."

Using readily available wax-printed cotton known as Ankara fabric, Samir and his staff of three set to work with their sewing machines. Within a week, he had delivered 300 facemasks to the office of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Kakuma to be distributed to staff working there. He also gave away masks to refugees and local people who could not afford to buy them from his shop.

“We live in a community with many other refugees and it will be hard to tell who has the virus and who doesn’t,” said Samir. “Social distancing is just not possible in the camps. The best we can do is to protect ourselves as much as we can.”

Samir is not alone. As more and more countries advise or require their citizens to wear facial coverings to curb the spread of COVID-19 refugee tailors and artisans from around the world are stepping up to help.

In the German town of Seddiner See, near Potsdam, a Syrian family of four have been working day and night to supply non-medical masks to nurses at the local hospital who were faced with a shortage. Rashid Ibrahim, who is a tailor by trade, did not hesitate when his German friend Bodo Schade asked him to help. His wife, Fatima, and their two young daughters have been working with him to cut, sort and count the masks.

When Rashid ran out of elastic bands, he turned to Schade, who helped the family get settled when they first arrived in Seddiner See in 2015.

“My wife asked in her WhatsApp group, where they usually exchange gardening tips,” said Schade. “An hour later, Fatima and Rashid’s mailbox was full of elastic bands. Half the town took part.”

When the media got wind of the family’s efforts, Rashid was offered funding to continue. He turned it down, stressing that he did not want any payment.

"If we can give something back to Germany, then we are happy."

“We were so warmly welcomed in Seddiner See,” explained Fatima. "We found shelter, we have jobs, our children can go to school. If we can give something back to Germany, then we are happy."

Besides facemasks, the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to protect frontline health and care workers from the coronavirus are in critically short supply around the world.

After Sasibai Kimis, the founder of Malaysian social enterprise Earth Heir, learned that frontline workers in the country’s hospitals and clinics were improvising PPE with plastic bags, she decided to take action in a way that would also benefit refugees. The company usually works with refugee artisans to produce embroidered jewelry and other crafts for MADE51, a UNHCR initiative to promote refugee-made products.

In a carefully sanitised workshop, the refugees from Afghanistan, Myanmar and Syria are now making PPE sets that include a gown, head cover and shoe cover.

“Our goals are to support and honour our frontline heroes, and to continue to provide income to the refugee artisans we serve,” explained Xiao Cheng Wong, Earth Heir’s CEO. “They are one of the most vulnerable groups during this pandemic and are hit the most during an economic slowdown.”

One of the refugees, Sajad Moradi from Afghanistan, said he was making between 15 and 20 sets of PPE per day and earning enough to replace the income he had lost as a result of the pandemic.

“We feel very proud to be able to contribute something back to Malaysia in this [situation],” he said.

Earth Heir has now accepted an order for a hospital for 4,000 head covers that will be made by a group of Chin refugees from Myanmar who learned to sew through a UNHCR programme supported by the fashion retailer, UNIQLO.

In other parts of the world, where lockdowns introduced to contain the spread of the coronavirus have had a dramatic impact on refugees’ livelihoods, turning tailoring businesses into mask-making ones has provided a lifeline.

Fatouma Mohamed, a Malian refugee who lives on the outskirts of Niamey, Niger’s capital, used to make and sell traditional Tuareg leather crafts. But after authorities imposed a curfew and sealed off the city from the rest of the country, business dried up.

“Nowadays, people are scared to leave their houses. Nobody comes to buy my products,” she said. “When I cannot sell my artifacts, I don’t have money to eat.”

Fatouma saw an opportunity in the authorities’ decision to make the wearing of face masks compulsory in Niamey. She now makes masks and sells them to the street vendors who have popped up on almost every corner in Niamey since the pandemic was declared.

“I sell my products for 300 West African CFA francs (US$0.50) per unit. I realize this is a temporary business, but with the money I make, I can continue to support my three children.”

Writing by Kristy Siegfried with reporting by Linda Muriuki in Kenya, Chris Melzer in Germany, Piedra Lightfoot for Malaysia and Marlies Cardoen in Niger.