Sewing new lives for refugee women in Chicago

By Maryam Saleh

A long, dark skirt with a blue floral pattern, perfect for an evening out. A white tunic with sheer sleeves, wrapped to the elbow in gold embellishment. A long-sleeve, black-and-white dress with an open front, matched perfectly with black leggings and a pair of pumps.

These are just some of the items made or embellished by four Chicago women. Seamstresses in their past lives, they are Syrian refugees in their present realities. And at blue meets blue, a Chicago-based clothing line, they found jobs that value the intersection of those identities.

The company, launched two months ago by Syrian-Americans Shahd Alasaly and Randa Kuziez, is specifically designed to create jobs for refugee women.

“[Women] have a very unique role in life, which is that they’re mothers, that they’re taking care of other family members, and we want to make sure that they truly feel empowered and that they’re able to find employment in their skill set,” said Alasaly, whose master’s thesis focused on working with refugees as they assimilate in their host countries.

There are a number of small businesses in the Chicago area that seek out refugees, advocates say, but blue meets blue is unique because it was created specifically for this purpose.

“Of course the staffing capacity [at small businesses] is not that much, but we have a great hope that we can find jobs for the refugees in a very short period of time, within three to four months,” said Yohannes Tegegne, program director at the Ethiopian Cultural Association of Chicago.

His organization – one of five resettlement agencies in the city – offers job fitness training to refugees, teaching them how to perfect their resumes and prepare for interviews.

Finding the right job is sometimes difficult since refugees are on a strict time schedule. Within three to six months, their federal support runs out, and they must find work to live and eventually to repay the costs of their travel to the U.S. to the government.

Illinois resettled 3,048 from various countries during the 2016 fiscal year, according to the Illinois Refugee Program’s annual report. Resettlement agencies provided 2,102 of those refugees with employment services, and nearly six in 10 of them found jobs.

refugee-employment-graphic
Helping refugees find jobs is a priority for refugee resettlement agencies. (Data Source: Illinois Refugee Program)

Alasaly was inspired to start the business by the exodus of refugees from Syria, where she lived for two years after high school. The mother-of-two was working toward her degree in international psychology at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology as Syria’s tragedy swelled.

More than five million Syrians have left the country since 2011, and as the crisis grew she decided she would have to do something to deal with a situation now considered the greatest humanitarian crisis in modern history.

The designer decided to mesh her educational background with her love for fashion to serve refugees.

The clothing line is not Alasaly and Kuziez’s first business venture, though – the duo created a children’s book subscription service that caters to Muslim families a few years ago. Their experience made it easy for them to create blue meets blue, but when they needed to find employees, they turned to the Syrian Community Network, a Chicago-based organization that helps Syrian refugees overcome cultural and linguistic barriers, Alasaly said.

When Syrian refugees arrive in Chicago, SCN surveys them to identify their skills. Relying on this information, the group introduced Alasaly and Kuziez to four women who had been seamstresses back home.

The jobs have had a remarkable impact on the women’s state of mind, Alasaly said.

“When we first started working together, you could tell there was a lot of depression, a lot of sadness. They had just come from a war-torn country, and many had left their family behind,” she explained, adding that the blue meets blue employees forged friendships on the job. “When we get together [now], even though they do talk about back home, they talk with much higher spirits.”

Refugee advocates agree that stable employment is crucial to refugees’ assimilation and well-being.

“If you have a talent and you have a skill, and now you’re going to use the skill…you assume this gives the women a sense of security and confidence because they’re producing a beautiful product,” said SCN President Suzanne Akhras Sahloul.

Because blue meets blue is a fairly new company, the women are employed on a part-time basis, working one week a month at one of the employee’s houses in a northern neighborhood of Chicago. They do this to accommodate one of the women, who is unable to leave home because she takes care of her ailing family members.

Alasaly, who describes the clothing line as “ethical,” said that means that women should be comfortable in their jobs.

“We go out of our way to make sure that the environment they’re working in is comfortable in all regards,” she said. “[That means they should] be able to secure childcare or come at a time that is feasible for them. We try to work around their schedules.”

Another component of ethical employment, Alasaly said, is fair wages. She said they pay employees about $12 per hour for their part-time work. That’s more than the $10.64 average full-time hourly wage refugees in Illinois earned last year, according to the Illinois Refugee Program.

The founders hope to expand the business, to hire refugee women of all backgrounds and to open a factory on Chicago’s north side. Although the products have a steep price tag (the skirts run from $150 to $295), Alasaly said the clothing line has attracted a diverse array of customers from around the country.

In the meantime, the partners remain focused on the business’s secondary mission, which is to improve public perception of refugees and bridge cultural gaps.

“I do hope that, through our fashion, we’re able to spread love,” Alasaly said.

Photo at top: Shahd Alasaly, blue meets blue co-founder, has long been interested in fashion. “With every single degree that I’ve done, there’s always been a minor or design classes, sewing classes, color theory – all the good stuff. And I’ve always kept up with all the latest fashion trends,” she says. Nov. 2, 2016. (Maryam Saleh/MEDILL)