A program is helping newly arrived refugee women develop their sewing and marketing skills as a means of earning income and supporting their families.
Toronto Star, byMarch 3, 2017
Alla Mahdei has been sewing all her life. Even the wars in Iraq and Syria could not separate her from her sewing machine.
Resettled to Canada under the refugee sponsorship program, the mother of three has finally found an opportunity to work from home and care for her daughters.
The Mississauga woman is one of 20 refugee women belonging to a new social enterprise that will be showcasing their products — including scarves, bandanas, and pillows marking Canada’s 150 birthday — at the Corvetti Education Centre on College St. on Saturday.
The talented seamstresses will also be available to demonstrate their machine sewing and handstitching skills as well as bead and embroidery work by helping members of the public alter, mend and tailor anything in their wardrobes at competitive fees.
“We don’t want handouts,” said Mahdei, 46, whose family fled from Iraq to Syria in 2006 and was sponsored by relatives in Canada three years ago. “Although we are refugees, we all come with skills and want to use our skills to benefit our families and community.”
Dubbed “Darzee” — the word means “tailor, seamstress and stitch” in Arabic, Hindi, Persian and Urdu — the program is dedicated to helping newly arrived refugee women develop and hone their sewing and marketing skills as a means of earning income and supporting their families.
It was launched in February by Mes Amis Canada, a Toronto grassroots organization that helps refugees in the areas of education, social integration, health, employment and assimilation.
The group was originally formed during Canada’s Syrian refugee resettlement program in 2015, when volunteers came together to organize clothing drives for the newcomers.
“The women all came with different levels of sewing skills and experience. They all want to utilize their skill-set, create and sell their own products,” said Julie Mahfouz Rezvani, Mes Amis’ executive director.
“We guide them where they can get cheap, quality materials. We teach them about marketing, pricing and professionalism and skills they need to run a successful business.”
Rezvani said her group started to focus on refugee employment in the fall as the one-year financial sponsorship support dwindled for the 25,000 Syrian newcomers toward the end of last year.
As many of the households have multiple children, the group tried to come up with job opportunities that would allow the women to work while caring for their family at home.
“Being able to work from home is critical for them. Flexibility is key,” said Rezvani. “They have the skills and there is a huge need. People always look for help from seamstresses. It’s like looking for a hairdresser. Once you find one, you stick to that person.”
More than 80 refugee women applied for the program, supported by the Alkhayyat Foundation Canada and COSTI, an immigrant settlement service agency. Twenty, some from as far as Kitchener and Uxbridge, were selected for the eight-week training that ends at the beginning of April.
Bareaa Odeh, mother of two young teens, has to leave her Mississauga home at 7:30 a.m. for a two-hour commute every Saturday for the weekly training, but said it’s worth it.
“It is not easy, but we all want to work hard to be successful,” said the 47-year-old, who earned a university degree in law in Damascus and arrived in Toronto via Ghana a year ago through Canada’s Syrian refugee resettlement program.
“Canada has given us a lot of things, supporting us. It is now my country. We want to contribute to Canada like when we were back home.”
The women will work as independent contractors upon their graduation from the program and Darzee, as a social enterprise, hopes to merchandise products such as their Canada 150 items to retailers like Hudson’s Bay and Winners in order to make it sustainable.
Read more at Toronto Star.