Refugees turn hand to mak­ing undies

The Hutt News - - OUT & ABOUT - BRITTMANN

A Welling­ton lawyer has quit her job, so that for­mer refugees could have one.

Elisha Wat­son re­signed from her full-time job as a lit­i­ga­tion lawyer at Bell Gully in Septem­ber to launch Nisa, an un­der­wear brand which em­ploys Welling­ton women from refugee back­grounds.

Wat­son was in­spired to found the com­pany, named the Ara­bic word for ‘‘wo­man’’, fol­low­ing her ex­pe­ri­ences pro­vid­ing le­gal ad­vice to refugees at the Com­mu­nity Law Cen­tre, and as a refugee re­set­tle­ment vol­un­teer for the Red Cross.

‘‘The char­ity and gen­eros­ity shown to the newly ar­rived refugees was re­ally amaz­ing but of­ten, as soon as they’d set­tled in, their first re­quest to you as a vol­un­teer was, ‘Help me find a job’,’’ Wat­son said.

Fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence, prac­tis­ing English, and a sense of pur­pose were among the rea­sons the for­mer refugees wanted em­ploy­ment.

‘‘They just want to lead a nor­mal life,’’ Wat­son said.

Wat­son ob­served some of the new New Zealan­ders had been un­suc­cess­ful in se­cur­ing jobs, largely due to lan­guage bar­ri­ers. When the 27-year-old, a keen seam­stress, learned many of the re­set­tled women shared her in­ter­est, she saw an op­por­tu­nity for them to use the skills they had de­vel­oped in their home coun­tries.

Wat­son de­vised the idea for an un­der­wear com­pany in July, rea­son­ing that the ev­ery­day gar­ment, needed year-round, was some­thing her fu­ture em­ploy­ees could learn to pro­duce with­out speak­ing flu­ent English.

‘‘The great thing about sew­ing or a man­ual task is it’s about show­ing, not telling,’’ Wat­son said. ‘‘And ev­ery­one un­der­stands ‘good’ or ‘bad’.’’

Nisa’s in­au­gu­ral range fea­tures ‘‘cheeky’’ and full briefs in high and low-waisted va­ri­eties, made from or­ganic cot­ton and lo­cally wo­ven elas­tic, as well as match­ing bralettes.

It will be avail­able to pur­chase on­line early next year.

Mean­while, Wat­son has launched a crowd­fund­ing cam­paign on PledgeMe to pur­chase two more spe­cial­ist in­dus­trial sew­ing ma­chines. Funds will also help Wat­son de­velop Nisa’s bralette range and cover fur­ther train­ing costs for her three em­ploy­ees, who are from Iraq, Syria and So­ma­lia. She is not tak­ing a wage, work­ing part-time at a dif­fer­ent law firm to sup­port her­self un­til the busi­ness be­comes self-sus­tain­ing.

Wat­son has trained her staff to use spe­cial­ist in­dus­trial sew­ing ma­chines in her sun­lit Kent Tce work­shop. She pays them $16 an hour, which she plans to in­crease to a liv­ing wage.

Rana Bolena, one of Nisa’s seam­stresses, ar­rived in New Zealand in 2012 with her two sons and hus­band, as well as his mother and brother.

The 42-year-old had worked as an of­fice man­ager at Iraq’s Min­istry of Elec­tric­ity in Bagh­dad for 18 years, be­fore the fam­ily – who are Chris­tians – fled to neigh­bour­ing Le­banon, fol­low­ing at­tacks on their home dur­ing the war.

They stayed in Le­banon for al­most two years be­fore ar­riv­ing in New Zealand as refugees.

‘‘When we came here, we had to start from zero, un­der­stand­ing a new life, a new coun­try, a new lan­guage, new laws,’’ Bolena said, com­par­ing the feel­ing to that of be­ing a new­born baby.

The fam­ily, who live in Kil­birnie, had known ‘‘just a lit­tle bit’’ about New Zealand. ‘‘We love it – not like it, we love it.’’

The Bole­nas have em­braced their new coun­try – ’’ter­ri­ble wind, beau­ti­ful coun­try, beau­ti­ful peo­ple’’ – but Rana and her hus­band have strug­gled to find suit­able work.

Rana, who had been taught to sew by her mother, ar­rived at the in­ter­view at Nisa’s work­shop armed with sheaf of cer­tifi­cates and qual­i­fi­ca­tions gained in New Zealand to im­prove her em­ploy­a­bil­ity, Wat­son re­called. ‘‘She was like, ‘I’m so ready to work.’’’

Wat­son hopes to em­ploy more women from refugee back­grounds – her goal is for them to even­tu­ally run Nisa them­selves. She said New Zealand has an op­por­tu­nity to be a model for refugee re­set­tle­ment in­ter­na­tion­ally.

‘‘But first we need to cre­ate space in our com­mu­ni­ties for those peo­ple, and that in­cludes jobs.’’

The New Zealand Red Cross Path­ways to Em­ploy­ment pro­gramme, which helps refugees find work, sug­gested can­di­dates for Wat­son to in­ter­view.

Em­ployer li­ai­son Lynne Hard­ing said such ini­tia­tives were ‘‘in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant’’ be­cause they pro­vided an op­por­tu­nity for for­mer refugees to show­case skills.

Wat­son’s PledgeMe cam­paign runs to De­cem­ber 4.

MONIQUE FORD/ STUFF

Nisa founder, Elisha Wat­son, left, and one of Nisa’s three em­ploy­ees, Rana Bolena.

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