Threads of A New Life

Afghan women in Canada join a sewing circle in Burnaby

by Janet Nicol

 

In the basement of a Burnaby dental building, a group of Afghan women come to sip tea and share their stories. They speak to each other in their native language of Dari. They are mothers and grandmothers, married and widowed. All are Muslim and most have been in Canada for less than four years.

But as members of Malalay Afghan Women’s Sewing and Crafts Co-operative, these women gather for more than a social visit. They mean business.

This sewing coop is the first of its kind in Canada. Started three years ago, the 22-member enterprise has become so successful, there is now a waiting list to join. The women share contracts they receive from individuals, businesses and non-profit groups to sew everything from shawls to conference bags.

They even sew scented pet pillows guaranteed to ward off fleas on dogs. Besides making clothes for people of all ages, the coop’s members will take in alterations. They also knit, crochet and do custom embroidery.

Gulalai Habib, of Immigrant Services Society in Vancouver, helped establish the unique sewing circle. The idea for the coop grew out of conversations between Habib and some of the refugee women she met at work who revealed the difficulties of finding employment in Canada. Sewing is a skill every Afghan woman possesses, Habib says and “their products provide a low-cost service to the community.”

A sign with the name Malalay printed in both English and Dari script hangs proudly in front of the building at Edmonds and Canada Way. The coop is named after “a legendary Afghan woman who led soldiers in a war of liberation,” Habib explains. “She symbolizes women’s strength.”

The rented space, filled with sewing and crafts machines and supplies, is where the women have come to work Monday to Thursday for the last three years.

Several organizations sponsored the coop in its first years, to help purchase sewing equipment for example, including the Canadian Community Economic Development Network, Vibrant Burnaby, the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, Vancity Community Foundation and Status of Women Canada. But the coop’s goal is to be self-sufficient, so 15 per cent of each member’s sewing commission goes back into the general account.

A business consultant has recently been hired to assist with technical and management support. Last year, Malalay was incorporated under the Cooperative Association Act and five members were elected to its board of directors at their first annual general meeting.

The coop also assists its members with ESL classes, translators, childcare and transportation. While Malalay has to limit its membership in order for the workers to make a reasonable wage, an additional 22 women drop in to enjoy the social benefits of the sewing circle, and all Afghan women residing in the Lower Mainland are welcome to participate in these gatherings.

And Malalay will only keep growing. There are plans to develop their website (www.malalaycooperative.com) to take online orders, Habib says. The coop also intends to increase its advertising and host an open house to showcase their products to the community.

The benefits of a business coop for newcomers are many, Habib believes, including giving members a model to start their own businesses. As for the secret to the success of Malalay, Habib says, “immigrant women are working together and not alone.”

Reprinted from the Canadian Immigrant, 2007.

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