Liberian refugee women stitch together new future after Angelina Jolie skills course

There was an atmosphere of joy and jubilation in Largo refugee camp last week when 50 Liberian refugee women each received a sewing machine after completing a sewing skills course, kindly funded by UNHCR's Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie. Their new skills will help the refugees earn a living when they finally return home.

A delighted Liberian refugee woman in Largo camp, Sierra Leone is given a sewing machine after completing a skills training course.   © UNHCR/S.Momodu

LARGO CAMP, Sierra Leone, Feb. 23 (UNHCR) - There was an atmosphere of joy and jubilation in Largo refugee camp last week when 50 Liberian refugee women each received a sewing machine after successfully completing a sewing skills course, funded by UNHCR's goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie.

"Today, our dreams have come true and for this we are very grateful. When we came to the camp, we did not know anything. But, with the skills that we have learned, we now know how to sew both for children and adults, we can return to Liberia and will be able to do something on our own," said Sangay Kawala on behalf of the trainees.

At the graduation ceremony the refugees sang songs in praise of Angelina Jolie and UNHCR. The Goodwill Ambassador donated the funds for the sewing courses in four refugee camps in Sierra Leone, including buying some of the sewing machines distributed to participants. UNHCR also helped fund the sewing machine purchase in Largo camp.

"I would like to congratulate all of you on the completion of your training. You deserve the certificates and sewing machines," UNHCR's Kenema sub-office head Ibrahima Coly said to loud cheers and applause. Coly encouraged the refugees to use their sewing machines to help them stitch together a new future and help others.

The majority of the group and their families have signed up to repatriate back to Liberia shortly, joining some 50,000 Liberian refugees from around West Africa who have now returned home since the official repatriation started. Back in Liberia, their sewing skills will be crucial to help them restart their lives.

"The future is now in your hands. Please make the best use of it. I would also like to appeal to you to kindly assist to train other refugees or returnees who were not privileged to get the machines. I wish you all good luck in your future career," Coly told the happy graduates.

The main aim of the sewing project was to build the capacity of refugee nursing mothers, improving their nutritional status by giving them skills to generate income, says training programme coordinator Magdalene Dakowa of Catholic Relief Services. Another aim was for the sewing groups in each of the camps to produce 500 baby clothes for refugee children.

The initial six-month training project started in January 2004. The course was so successful that the trainees went on to produce children's clothes for both refugees and host communities as a way of continuing their career development. During this period the women in Largo camp were contracted to produce school uniforms by one of UNHCR's partners. The graduation ceremony marked the conclusion of their career training.

Funds for the project were also used to help 500 other refugee women improve their backyard gardening, again to help improve the nutritional status of the refugees.

At the graduation ceremony, five trainers of the project - three men and two women - also each received one machine. One of the trainers, Isata Koroma, came from the host community.

"The sewing machine that I have received will help me and my family," said Isata. "I am a single mother. My husband was killed in the war in my country, Sierra Leone, and it has been really difficult for me to take care of our seven children. I am very grateful for this assistance."

There are eight refugee camps in Sierra Leone hosting some 46,000 refugees, with most coming from Liberia's most devastated Lofa County. With the positive changes taking place in Liberia UNHCR is now actively promoting voluntary repatriation for an estimated 160,000 Liberian refugees still outside their homeland. Some 46,000 Liberian refugees remain in camps in Sierra Leone with Largo camp hosting 5,300 refugees.

By Sulaiman Momodu in Largo camp, Sierra Leone