Crafting success with former refugees

A new social enterprise is providing opportunities for women from a refugee background.

Nubia Bedoya looks at the camera and grins, then quickly gets back to work. Later she says she dressed up especially for the occasion when she'd heard she was going to be filmed.

The vivacious and outgoing personality is replaced with a look of serious concentration as she unpacks her sewing machine, a 1970s model that is still going strong.

Nubia is one of three women attending a workshop at the Wellington Sewing Centre today. Hajar Mazraeh, Nubia Bedoya, and Muna Al Nasar are all former refugees who are being employed by a new social enterprise called Needs More Cushions.

It’s the brainchild of Jill McKenzie, a public servant who initially started a blog about interiors and travel as a creative outlet.

"Over time it grew to covering artisan crafted interiors from around the world and I wanted to showcase those brands that were doing really cool things; showcasing remote communities and selling ethical interiors."

Jill was inspired to take the leap from blog to business after discovering an American company called Gaia for Empowered Women. The organisation employs former refugee women and utilises their skills to create bags, jewellery, and cushions from vintage materials.

Working with former refugees seemed like a natural fit for Jill, who saw that the employment and language barriers faced by Gaia's employees were identical to those facing women arriving in New Zealand as refugees.

"One of the things we’ve learnt is that for many of these ladies, they’re already massively experienced seamstresses and one of the first things they ask for when they arrive in New Zealand is a sewing machine."

Nubia Bedoya is originally from Colombia, now she's working part time with Needs More Cushions. Photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross 

The experience the women bring to the table is evident. Hajar, Nubia, and Muna begin the workshop by learning how to cut the traditionally-woven fabric specifically for a cushion design. It's an incredibly precise task that they complete with ease.

Next, they move to the ironing board where they apply interfacing material to add stiffness and prevent the fabric from stretching, which would distort the design.

Finally, all three women gather around a table, each with their own sewing machine, and a loud whirring sound fills the air as they finish off the designs – overlocking the seams, inserting invisible zips, and adding the finishing touches.

Muna Al  Nasar came to New Zealand as a refugee from Syria, she's a talented seamstress who was employed through Red Cross Pathways to Employment. Photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross

This is all done under the watchful eye of Gemma Crouch-Gatehouse from the Wellington Sewing Centre. Jill is the first to admit that her sewing knowledge is limited, which is why she asked Gemma to hold the workshop.

"We know that our team of former refugees are really talented seamstresses, so we've pretty much just taken a back seat and allowed Gemma to work with them to teach them the extra tips and tricks you need in order to make cushions, which is something that many of them haven’t actually done before."

The cushions are made from vintage and artisan-crafted fabrics that are all made using traditional weaving and dyeing techniques.

Co-founder of Needs More Cushions, Farhana Khan, says they ethically source fabrics from as far afield as Mali, Guatemala, and the Ivory Coast.

"We're enabling a connection between remote communities around the world and New Zealand consumers."
Hajar Mazraeh works at an interlocker during a Needs More Cushions workshop. Photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross

"In the future, we'd like to make connections with other social enterprises that are working with communities that make such fabrics," says Farhana. “We want to know and tell their stories.”

Plans for Needs More Cushions include finding a permanent space for the social enterprise so the women can become involved in all aspects of the business. Right now, though, Nubia, Hajar, and Muna will work independently, which has been a huge drawcard for them.

“The work we offer allows the women to work from home and they can manage the sewing around other existing responsibilities,” says Jill.

Needs More Cushions will launch in the New Year and you can sign up to their mailing list here.

How to support refugee resettlement

Nubia, Hajar, and Muna all came to Needs More Cushions through the Red Cross Pathways to Employment programme. You can support former refugees settling in New Zealand by offering them employment opportunities.

Our Pathways to Employment teams work with a range of clients from refugee backgrounds who have a wide variety of skills. If you're an employer with an available position, you can contact your Pathways to Employment team here.

You can read more stories about former refugees who have been placed in employment through the programme here.