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Cyprus

The sewing group helping refugees to rebuild lives

the sewing space
The sewing space
What began as a safe space has now become a little powerhouse producing items sold worldwide. Alix Norman finds out the story behind Refumade

In a sleepy backstreet of Old Nicosia lies a tall stone house. And as you pass by of a morning, you’ll hear a gentle hum emanating from the top floor – a buzz of light, lively chatter mixed with the rumble of nine sewing machines. This is Refumade, a place where refugees meet, learn and heal, all through the medium of sewing.

A light-soaked, airy space, it’s part of the Dignity Centre – a project under the auspices of NGO Refugee Support that has been helping refugees and asylum seekers find support and dignity in new lands. The Cyprus arm was set up in 2019 and has, over the last three years, become a place of new beginnings: a source of information, a welcome sanctuary, a hope for those in need.

“The Centre is a place to have a shower, wash your clothes, or use a bathroom,” says Centre Manager Laura Matteini. “It also offers a small food bank, because people coming out of the refugee camps do not have immediate access to their benefits or in a difficult situation. And we have free language classes, help in finding a job, and teach new computer skills – all the elements which help rebuild shattered lives.”

However, it’s Refumade which has, quite possibly, been the centre’s most successful undertaking to date.

quality check. all the products are carefully checked to monitor the improvement of every single person
All the products are carefully checked to monitor the improvement of every single person

“The original idea was to give female refugees a place entirely their own – many had suffered abuse or trauma, and needed a safe space to develop confidence and enjoy the company of other women,” Laura reveals. “And we also hoped to teach our visitors a new skill, something that would help them make a little income and provide much-needed structure to their lives. But over time, it has grown into something much, much more.

Hand-sewn items made right here in the Cyprus’ capital are sold worldwide under the brand name Refumade, with 80 per cent of proceeds returned to the makers. “We sell in the UK and the States,” says Laura, “as well as in various other countries around the world, and each and every item is handcrafted with love here in our sewing room.

“We started in 2019 with just a couple of sewing machines and a professional tailor, Thierno Ba, a refugee from Guinea who wanted to use his expertise to help others,” says Laura. “Today, we have over 40 people using the machines on a daily basis – everyone from total beginners to expert sewers. It’s a great way to earn a little income, and more importantly, it gives our visitors a purpose, something to look forward to…”

sewing class
Tailor Thierno Ba teaches a sewing class

What began as a safe space for women has now opened up to everyone, and the third-floor sewing room rings with laughter, enthusiasm and chatter. “When your life is a bit messy,” Laura explains, “things can easily get worse. So our sewing lessons bring much-needed structure into people’s lives: you can leave your past at the door and enjoy being in good company.

“So many people don’t realise that it can be very hard for refugees to get a job in Cyprus: they’re very willing, they want to work, but it’s incredibly challenging to find employment. So you end up with mothers stuck in a small room with their children and no adult conversation, or families suffering from mental and emotional health issues – on top of all the trauma they’ve already been through – with too much time on their hands. Refumade helps fill that time with a constructive, creative skill; something that can give life new purpose.”

While Refumade is “certainly not a job,” Laura adds, it’s more than proved its worth over the years. “The skills people learn are transferrable: many use their newfound talents to make clothes for their families, or repair items for friends. And though we’re not H&M,” she smiles, “we do sell quite a lot of items!”

thanks to donated fabrics people can practice and sew clothes for themselves
Thanks to donated fabrics people can practice and sew clothes for themselves

The Refumade products are created with care, passion and love, and each is inspired by a member of the sewing space. From colourful aprons to sturdy totes, bright backpacks to cushion covers, culottes and cases for make-up, the shop is doing a roaring trade. And, as each item comes with a brief maker’s bio, it helps to connect the buyer with the person behind their purchase.

There’s Marie, who was studying law and running her own shop before she had to leave Cameroon in fear of her life. Jasmine from the Philippines, who is passing on the crochet skills she learnt from her mother and creating a host of new products herself. And Majdoulen, who escaped war-torn Syria with her two young children, and is now putting her former studies in the Fine Arts to a different use.

“Many of our sewers are young mothers,” says Laura, “and we encourage them to bring their children along to the classes. Refumade is so much more than the items you see in the shop,” she concludes. “It’s actually a meeting place where refugees can make friends, find support, and share or learn sewing skills. We’re creating a place for people of all nationalities, who have often suffered great trauma in their pasts, to begin anew, find a purpose, and rebuild their lives!”

 

To find out more about Refumade items, visit https://refumade.org/ or visit the Instagram account @refumade

Donations of fabric, thread, sewing machines or money are always welcome, and Cyprus residents are encouraged to visit the Nicosia Dignity Centre to see Refumade in action

For more information about the Dignity Centre, donations or volunteering opportunities visit https://www.refugeesupport.eu/

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