A Thread Of Hope
In a refugee camp in northern Iraq, Paula Horsfall, 61, from Berkshire, is teaching women to sew their way out of poverty
“Even in the most horrific of times, it’s OK to laugh – it keeps them going”
As I looked around the room I couldn’t help but smile. Amid the rhythmic hum of whirring sewing machines, there was laughter. Fabrics in bright colours were being turned into beautiful bags and with each finished bag, supportive cheers of enthusiasm filled the air. It was January 2017 and I had arrived in Baharka, a refugee camp in Iraq armed with four donated sewing machines, ready to teach refugees how to sew. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I certainly hadn’t expected to see laughter.
However, if there was one thing my initial group of 20 female refugees were teaching me, it was that even in the most horrific of times, it’s OK to laugh. Maybe it was the only thing keeping them going.
It all started by chance, in Dubai. I’d moved there as a “trailing spouse” in November 2010, when my husband Ian took an IT job there. Eager to make the most of my time there, I’d set up a crafts workshop, encouraging expats to be creative. Then, in 2016, a woman I’d taught to sew got chatting to the man waiting next to her at a taxi rank. “You don’t know anyone who can sew, do you?” he asked. She told him about me.
It turned out that he was Nicholas Paillart a volunteer at Bring Hope, a humanitarian charity who helped vulnerable families caught up in war, natural disasters and famines. Nicholas was hoping to send sewing machines to refugee camps in Iraq, to help women out of poverty by giving them a skill that could earn them money. But those women also needed to be taught how to use the machines.
My friend soon introduced Nicholas to me and he explained the project. I’d always wanted to embark on a humanitarian project so I couldn’t say yes fast enough. As well as the four sewing machines I took across initially, I found another 16 second-hand ones in Erbil when I arrived.
Then, in January 2017, I took them to Baharka, one of Iraq’s many refugee camps. That first trip changed my life. The refugees I met had survived extraordinary hardship and had fled their homes in search of safety. Refugees are often written off as a problem in the international press, but everyone has the right to seek asylum when their lives are in danger. No one really wants to leave the place they called home.
As we sewed, the women told me their stories. One lost four sons to the Syrian civil war. Another lost 25 members of her extended family when an airstrike hit her home. From babies to grandparents, all killed. The pain they’d suffered was unimaginable.
Ian and I have moved back to the UK now and I work part-time, to help fund my trips. When I returned for my second visit the women I’d met seemed surprised to see me. “We didn’t think you’d come back!” they cried. “You are family now”. We hugged and cried together. I’m returning again in September. I can’t imagine my life without these women in it now. I’m constantly thinking of ways to raise money, rally donations and fund my next trip.
My sewing ladies are talented, eager learners too. They make beautiful bags out of a traditional fabric called a jajim, and then I take the
bags back to the UK and sell them. They take 100% of the profits, which helps them support their family and build their futures.
The camps are harsh, difficult places to live. Families live in breezeblock makeshift houses, or tents. The refugees are mostly Syrian and Kurdish and not going home anytime soon, so they try to make the most of what they have. It can be muddy and cold and children don’t even have shoes.
As many as 30 kids are born in these camps every month. They grow up knowing nothing else. In many ways it’s heartbreaking, but it is a stunning country steeped in history and as I watch these women take a moment out from their pain to unite in laughter and kindness, I see such strength. They hope people like the bags they sew, and they want to know the world has not forgotten them. There are 50 refugee camps in northern Iraq and I aim to reach them all. My plan for next year is to launch the Sewing Hope Academy so we can reach more women.
I’m looking for sewing machines, volunteers to accompany me to Iraq and customers to buy the bags. We can help change lives, by doing something as simple as shopping! I want all the women to see themselves as entrepreneurs, capable of earning and providing for their families. I want them to have hope for a better future because they don’t deserve their past.
When Ian and I got back from Dubai in January 2015, I felt like I was flailing. He was busy in his job, our daughter Lucy, 31, had
moved to London and didn’t need me anymore. I needed to find my purpose. So while I know I am helping my sewing ladies, the truth is they’re helping me too. I have a sense of achievement, a purpose and a new career, at the ripe young age of 60. They’ve taught me it’s not the things you have in life that matter, it’s the people.
To help Paula, visit