Careers in Sewing – Sewing in Refugee Camps in Iraq



This week we are interviewing Paula Horsfall who has set up a really fantastic initiative teaching women in refugee camps in Iraq to sew. The project is part of the Bring Hope charity and this new skill provides these women with an income so they can support their families. The cloth they sew is the native jajim and it is used to create bags.

This is a project close to our hearts and there are lots of ways as a sewing community we can help. Find out more at the end of this post.

What is your background and how did you first get into sewing?

Before we went to the Middle East in 2010 I worked for an investment bank in one of their property funds where I managed the learning and development department.  I loved my job, not only because I was a part of people developing and growing but because I knew everyone in the company.  I’m definitely a people person.

I first learned to sew as a child in primary school.  My mum was a seamstress and used to make clothes for me on her Singer treadle machine.  I loved the idea of making things out of fabric, putting pieces together and seeing something unique emerge.  Mum was so clever and I’m sure she would have been much more creative if she hadn’t had four fairly feral children to raise.  She did make sure we had lots of creative opportunities though and, looking back, most of our toys had a creative element to them. 

As a teenager I made my own clothes – my friend Miriam and I were the same size, so we would make things that we could each wear to extend our wardrobe. I have loved sewing all my life and remember being very sad when dad bought mum an electric machine because the treadle machine was considered old fashioned. 

Can you tell us about how this project started?

Life is a question of timing and opportunity and they collided for me late in 2016. My husband had dragged me kicking and screaming back to the UK because the company he worked for wanted him in head office and I was really struggling to make a connection with the town where we live.  I had been running a successful craft studio in Dubai with another creative expat – a dream really.  We were welcomed with open arms by the expat community in DXB as there really wasn’t anything else like us happening and before long, apart from teaching sewing ourselves, we were able to offer a platform for other creatives to teach their craft.  We had a column in Good Housekeeping magazine and appeared regularly on local radio.  Returning to a cold and gloomy house left in a bit of a state by tenants was not my idea of fun and I realised that I needed an occupation to save my sanity!

An artist friend in Dubai was waiting for an elusive taxi one busy Thursday night when she and the stranger she was standing next to decided to share the next one that appeared.  Nick, as he turned out to be, asked my friend if he knew anyone who sewed who might be interested in developing a humanitarian project in Iraq based around sewing.  That’s how it started – a chance encounter between strangers.  By January 2017 we were in Erbil piloting Sewing Hope in Baharka Camp.

What does a typical week look like for you?

I work Monday to Thursday for the local authority so Sewing Hope fits around that.  I took the job because I can do office work and I could walk to and from work so get those magic steps in four days a week but mainly for the social aspect of work.  Oh, and also to have some money of my own – it’s quite nice to be able to buy your husband a birthday present that he hasn’t paid for himself.  My earnings pay for my visits to Iraq too.

The rest of my time is spent on managing Sewing Hope. I think it was Bette Davis who said sleep is for sissies.

What are the best and worst bits of running a project like this?

The best bits far outweigh the worst bits – if there are any worst bits.  Let’s get them over with first.  Lack of sleep.  Not always because I spend so many hours working on Sewing Hope but sometimes because I get a genius idea in the middle of the night and have to write it down.

The best bits are without a doubt seeing the progress the sewing team in Baharka Camp have made, not only in the quality of their sewing but also in their lifestyle.  Being paid a monthly salary means that they are part of the local economy and not entirely dependent upon humanitarian aid. 

One of the ladies in the BBC film mentioned that her ‘psychology’ had improved since she started working for Sewing Hope.  Her family in Mosul was wiped out in an air strike as they were all sheltering in one building.  25 people.  Gone.  It was just by chance that she and her husband and children had decided at the last moment to shelter somewhere else.  Her husband cannot find work, so she is now the family breadwinner and is determined that her children will get an education, so they can achieve their potential.  This is what Sewing Hope is about – giving women hope for the future, giving them dignity, and giving them skills to create a sustainable income for themselves. 

Another worst bit is leaving them behind when I have to return to the UK.  We are family.  We are friends.  Religion has no place here.  We are women.  We are mothers, sisters, aunts, nieces and we love each other.  It’s as simple as that. The women don’t like to see me cry when I leave them because it makes them want to cry and they have already cried rivers of tears.  They focus on the fact that they are happy, I have been to see them and they know I will come back. They know they are part of the bigger picture and that there are people in the outside world advocating for them.

A fabulously great aspect of Sewing Hope is the team of volunteers I have around me.  Amazing women who feel the same way, who want to help, who have passion in their souls and who can sew.  This is my tribe.

How did the BBC get involved?

The local authority I work for has a PR department and they heard about my project on the grapevine and decided to publish information on Sewing Hope in the monthly newsletter.  Somehow the local press caught hold of the story and syndicated it across the regions newspapers and this is where the BBC heard the story.  I was contacted by Ben who came to do a short interview in my home and this went out the local news.  I was also interviewed on BBC Radio Berkshire.

Ben and I were chatting when he came to do that first interview and just mentioned casually that he would like to accompany me on my next trip to Iraq.  I took him seriously and was like a dog with a bone making regular contact to ensure he was still on board.  He was and he did accompany me and my team of volunteers in April and did a brilliant job of capturing what Sewing Hope is about and the humanity of the people who participate.  I hope he will come back again. 

What are your plans for the project this year?

2018 is a big year for Sewing Hope because as a result of the publicity from the BBC I have been inundated with offers of help.  Everything from brand new sewing machines to fabric to financial donations.  This means that I will be able to initiate the project in a further two camps in September. 

One of the camps is shelter to 13,000 Syrian refugees and is the first camp to be established in Kurdistan in Northern Iraq.  Initially this camp housed people in tents but these have now disappeared to be replaced by breeze block shelters and there is a tangible air of permanence to the camp.  We’ll be working with a team of 20 ladies to begin with.

The donations of sewing machines mean that I can also bring forward a long-held wish to work with Yezidi women who live in perilous conditions north west of Erbil. 

How do you see the project growing in the future?

There are 48 refugee camps in Northern Iraq and, where possible, the aim is to establish Sewing Hope in as many as practicable.

It’s a long-term project which aims to give each woman earning power, the ability to see themselves as entrepreneurs, and as part of an economy trying to emerge from the stasis of the past. 

The aim of Sewing Hope changes and adapts to what is needed at any given time.  Just this month a volunteer went to visit Erbil to help the sewing team but found out that they had no First Aid skills, so she just cracked on and developed a workshop to teach them basic skills.

During my last visit one of the ladies asked me whether they could take their sewing machines home to work on paid jobs the local community were asking for.  Absolutely they can take them home.  Let’s go one better though – we’ll get their current sewing machines serviced ($20 each) and replace them with new ones so that the ‘old’ ones can remain at home.  Now that is entrepreneurial thinking!

What this means though is that I have a continuing need for good quality sewing machines able to be used on a constant basis five days a week. I promised the ladies I would bring them each a new sewing machine in September and because of the wonderful donations from people all over the south of England I can fulfil that promise.

Some people have also donated vintage machines and, with their permission, they will be sold to raise funds for more new, modern machines.  By the way, when I say ‘new’, brand new is great, but if the machine is modern and only a couple of yeas old that is also fab.  I’m afraid that I am unable to accept broken machines because Sewing Hope just doesn’t have the funds to have them repaired.

What are you sewing right now/will be your next project?

What am I sewing right now?  Erm, can I just say that I have several WIPs on the go?  I’m still unable to refuse a piece of vintage Sanderson so my stash is embarrassingly large, but I love making bags (a girl can never have too many bags), and curtains for the Georgian cottage we are renovating.

How can the sewing community get involved?

Paula has sent us a list of things that she really needs in terms of supplies and we thought this might be where we can help her out. I’m sure most of the items listed below we have in our stashes and if you email Paula [email protected] she can send you an address to post out anything you can spare for the appeal. Her next trip to Iraq is in October and the last date to get materials or sewing machines to her for this trip is 29th August.

The other big thing she needs are sewing machines. If anyone has a machine they’ve been thinking of replacing this could be a fantastic way of giving it a new home and helping a great cause. Unfortunately Paula can’t cover the postage costs but if you were up for donating the machine her email address is below. The machines need to be electric and in good working order.

Sewing supplies needed include:

  • 2 inch waistband elastic
  • Fleecy fabric
  • Knicker elastic
  • Good quality sewing thread
  • Sewing machine needles – size 14 and up
  • Tailors scissors
  • Stitch unpickers
  • Mini snip-it scissors
  • Needle threaders
  • Hand sewing needles
  • Universal machine bobbins
  • Tailors chalk
  • 6 and 8 inch zippers
  • 2 inch wide cotton webbing in neutral colours.  This is used for the jajim bag straps and we can’t get it in Iraq so we need tons and tons of it.
  • Post it notes
  • Pencils
  • Pencil sharpeners
  • Tape measures (metric)
  • Steel rulers
  • Pins

Volunteers to accompany me to Iraq. 

Basic sewing skills needed as well as resilience.  Visiting a refugee camp can be emotional and we work full days for five days.  We do have a day off to go sightseeing – there is so much to see.  Google Erbil – it’s a beautiful, ancient city.  Volunteers pay their own air fare but good quality hotel and all meals are covered by the project.

More information on Sewing Hope is here.

If you can help this project or have materials you can donate please email Paula on [email protected]

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