Refugees turn hand to making undies
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.
Nisa founder, Elisha Watson, left, and one of Nisa’s three employees, Rana Bolena.