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Every Thursday, a group of women sit in a room together, laughing and sharing their thoughts of the week over a needle and thread. Week in, week out, they turn up on time, armed with their ideas for new designs and a burning desire to create a new outfit. These women are Little Hands students but do not come to our Belsize Park Studio. These women cannot be named and their faces cannot be shown because they do not feel safe to be exposed **. These women are refugees and thanks to our partnership with the Helen Bamber Foundation, have been an integral part of the Little Hands community for over two years.
These women do not have it easy. Alexandra tells me that she cannot afford to even use public transport for her only means of survival is her weekly food voucher. She has been attending our classes for two years now, having once been locked up in a detention centre that she describes as the
“worst place ever”
Zara is in a similar situation; with little money she cannot travel and she is becoming increasingly worried that she is wasting the precious years of her life worrying too much and is scared that it is affecting her health.
Magda left Malawi twelve years ago and has only last week received her papers. She is now required to find new housing but her lack of children means she is not a priority for the council. She has only 28 days to find a new home.
However, these three brave women all have one thing in common; their newfound love of design. Despite a Helen Bamber therapist’s referral for all three of them, having interviewed them over the course of the class, I learn their passions are far deeper than just a referral.
Zara is originally from Pakistan and initially came to England to study at the West London Fashion and Design College but changing circumstances meant that she was unable to leave the country once she had finished. She tells me that this class makes her feel good about herself and helps her to see that she is not a “useless person” and that she is still capable of making things.
Madga feels very similar. She tells me:
“ I love seeing fabric turn into clothing and that amazing feeling I get when I finish something. It’s a sense of achievement”.
Alexandra goes as far to tell me that this class is the most interesting part of her week. In other words, these women may use our classes to help them through the week but it also revitalises a passion of their former selves. It revitalises their entire personality and self worth.
I ask them how our classes make them feel.
“Uplifted and invigorated” says Alexandra.
“ My mood improves, my teacher is patient with me and I love everything I’ve made- my dress, my bag and my scarf”.
Zara tells me that everything she makes feels special and that for once in her life, she is starting to feel special again too. Magda also feels proud, both of herself and of the skirt she has just made herself. All three of the women wear what they make on a regular basis. Alexandra carries her bag wherever she goes, Zara is wearing the dress she made last month and Madga informs me that she wears the pyjamas she made, every night in bed. What Little Hands is doing is invoking a sense of pride in these women and has created great friendships between the group.
“ We all meet up now several times a week and are also going to other classes together”
These women deserve friendships. They deserve the pride they have lost over the course of the past few years. And finally, they are starting to realise that for themselves.
Astrid asks a member of staff from Helen Bamber what her opinion on the various classes they offer is and the response was overwhelmingly positive. She explains that these women and men previously felt isolated in their surroundings; some are unable to speak the language and knowing very few if any people in their neighbourhood. However what the classes can offer them is not only new skills but a something enjoyable to participate in amidst the week full of appointments with doctors, therapists, solicitors and the Home Office. She also remarks that making clothes, painting etc. itself has become an integral part of their emotional recovery.
“ Many are using our creative classes as a way of overcoming the traumas they have been through and reconnecting with the people they have left behind”.
The conversations have also shifted from discussing problems to planning meet ups to discuss new projects and fabrics. “ Would we love to expand?” she asks, repeating my question to herself.
“ Definitely. It’s given these women purpose”.
They all burst into laughter when asked what their funniest moment in class has been. The words “quality control” all leave them in fits of giggles, as does their recollection of Astrid’s face when they surprised her for her birthday. Astrid’s fondest memory of spending time with the women is more bitter- sweet.
“ It was when Magda said that sewing bought her closer to her mother. She told me she was no longer able to go home but because her mother used to sew for her when she was a young girl, it felt as if they were re-connected again”.
Of course the weekly visits are much more significant than just teaching how to sew. It’s about enhancing positivity and the sense of community and helping them have a future. When asked about their future, the women were uncertain. Magda is fortunate enough to have a plan and is in the midst of applying to colleges for an IT Degree. However for Zara and Alexandra things aren’t so clear.
“ You can’t have big aspirations in our situations” says Alexandra. “ I can’t think more than a week ahead because It makes me too upset”. Zara agrees- “ You have to stay positive purely because you can’t let yourself think too far ahead”.
However we want these women and men to have a future and we want them to feel proud of what lies ahead. We want them to embrace their talents and use it to provide them with both the financial and emotional support they deserve.
The session gradually closes to and with the group’s laughter resonating in the air, Astrid packs up her materials and heads back to the Little Hands Studio in Belsize Park.
** Please note, names have been changed to preserve the security of these women’s identities.