Integrating Refugees ‘Stitch By Stitch’
Stitch By Stitch
Award winning entrepreneurs and social innovators produce garments for German fashion labels while giving refugee women a chance to work
In a cozy workshop in Frankfurt’s Bornheim district, shelves filled with folded material line the walls, and long rolls of colourful cloth are stacked in each corner. Esraa, a petit seamstress-in-training, leans over a big table in the middle of the room. Guided by a paper pattern, she carefully cuts through a sheet of bright lime-green fabric. Today, she’s making a blouse.
Esraa is one of more than one million refugees who arrived in Germany in 2015 – most of them from war-torn countries like Syria and Afghanistan. After having survived the journey, the next challenge is integrating in her new society, economy, and surroundings. In most cases that means learning the language, finding a job and finishing their education. Esraa had been studying fashion design in Damascus before her family fled the Syrian war. In Germany she wants to pick up her studies again, but she needs to improve her German skills first. In doing so, Esraa is able to gain practical sewing experience alongside her studies with her first job in Germany.
The project “Stitch by Stitch” was brought into being by seamstress Claudia Frick and graphic designer Nici von Alvensleben. They hope the startup will help their seamstresses adapt to life, culture, and work in Germany. ”It was also the question: What can we do? Not what is Angela Merkel doing to help, or what are other people doing, but what can we do?” Claudia said. Her dream is that in a few years, many of the seamstresses will open their own sewing workshops.
For Esraa it was a big step to get her first job in Germany. Nici recalls the moment, when she met Esraa’s family and decided to take her on board. “Across from us was her father and he pulled out his phone, took a photo, super proud, and I was realizing that this photo is going to get sent around friends, neighbours, probably people in his home country. And it said ‘Look, my youngest daughter is the first one getting a job in Germany.’ I felt like there we really have an impact,” she said.
However, Nici and Claudia still face some obstacles. Both women have more than a decade’s experience running their own businesses, but launching Stitch by Stitch has come with its own challenges – for one, dealing with migration officials and bureaucracy. New territory, says Nici.
“I think the biggest challenge for us is working with the Federal Employment Agency and the Foreigners’ Registration Office,” Nici said. “There needs to be only one agency or one person who’s not supportive and the whole thing falls apart. But I have to say that any encounters I’ve had were really fantastic, people were really helpful.”
Also, many refugees have been through traumatic experiences to get to Europe. That’s something Nici and Claudia have had to take into account. When setting up Stitch by Stitch, they consulted a trauma expert. Nici says they hope to turn the workshop into a positive space where the seamstresses can focus on their skills.
“After having this experience, working with these colours and beautiful materials, it’s kind of soothing, something nice to do and uplifts you, and you also created something at the end of the day,” Nici said.
Their project aims to benefit refugees, but in the long run it should also be profitable. They plan to use the workshop to produce designs for small German fashion labels. The response to their small operation so far has been mostly positive. They say local fashion companies are interested in placing orders with them because they’re working with refugees. So far, Esraa is the only seamstress working with Stitch by Stitch. But by the end of the year, Nici and Claudia would like to have five seamstresses. If things go well down the track, the Stitch by Stitch team plans to find a bigger production space for their workshop, and eventually want to take the idea to other German cities.
Blueprints for success
In February 2016, Stitch by Stitch was one of 14 startups recognized by Frankfurt-based ANKOMMER: Perspektive Deutschland, a social innovation award funded by KfW Stiftung, with the Social Impact agency. ANKOMMER supports entrepreneurial individuals who are trying to improve the social and economic participation of refugees through innovative models and concepts, including access to education, vocational training and jobs.
Along with 13 other entrepreneurs from Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berlin and Leipzig, Stitch by Stitch prevailed against nearly 180 competitors to earn the coveted award, a scholarship program which provides socially-minded start-ups with eight months of financial and organizational support. Selected via a highly competitive multi-stage selection process, all the projects, “without exception”, demonstrate a clear capacity to be replicated or scaled to new locations.
“We have received applications from almost all sectors. Whether IT, gastronomy or culture, the sustainable nature of the funded projects depends on its success in the free market,” emphasizes Social Impact CEO Norbert Kunz. “Here, it is particularly important that not only high skilled professionals get job prospects in their new homes, but also those immigrants who may not have recognized vocational qualifications, but have special talents.”
Asked about her goals for 2016, Stitch by Stitch co-founder von Alavensleben had this to say: ”Building, with five seamstresses, a solid customer base, so that we can live by the company in the medium term.”
A modest and determined beginning.
Source: Adapted with permission from: “Integrating Refugees Stitch by Stitch”, by Natalie Muller & Ruth Krause, In: Deutsche Welle, March 30, 2016.
Making it Work for You:
- Socially conscious businesses are most successful when they combine business smarts with a passion for social innovation
- If your social venture aims to help marginalized groups, make sure its business plan integrates opportunities to consult, engage and collaborate with the beneficiary group. Build integrity into your brand in the process.
- Employment is more than a pay cheque for refugees and new immigrants. It's also a path to language learning, cultural fluency, new relationships and the confidence to embrace a new world.
- Help refugees by helping them help themselves. What can you learn from the experience, skills and diversity that your newest employee brings to the workplace?