Newly-arrived Afghan seamstress sparks Stitch Buffalo face mask project to benefit refugee women
With Western New York still in the grasp of the coronavirus pandemic, a newly-resettled refugee family is getting into the spirit of the City of Good Neighbors. For Buffalo Toronto Public Media’s Making Buffalo Home initiative, WBFO’s Kyle Mackie reports on how an Afghan couple sparked a business venture that’s making face masks and generating income for refugee women.
Dawne Hoeg could tell that Palawasha Basir was a trained seamstress from the moment she first walked into Stitch Buffalo’s retail shop with her husband, Abdul, last fall.
“One day they walked in and went through every single sewing machine I have here at Stitch,” said Hoeg, who is founder and executive director of the organization. “[They] paid, you know, $60 for a sewing machine and they left.”
Stitch Buffalo is a nonprofit that seeks to advance social justice and create economic opportunity for refugee women through textile arts. The Basirs, who only arrived in Buffalo in October, happen to live one block away from the organization’s storefront on Buffalo’s West Side and it’s become a natural place for them to find their footing—especially for a woman of Palawasha Basir’s skill.
“My mother was a good tailor and I learned from her,” said Basir, with interpreting help from Abdul, explaining how she learned to sew in their home country of Afghanistan. “I also made the clothes for my children, so I practiced doing that, and also our relatives and neighbors brought clothes for me [to tailor].”
Shortly after her discovery of Stitch Buffalo—which she learned about during her English class at the International Institute of Buffalo—Basir started doing sewing work for the organization. She began by making tunics for an annual spring pop-up sale, which has moved online in light of the coronavirus pandemic. But when COVID-19 started to hit Western New York, Basir wanted to do something more to help.
“She is the first woman that said, ‘I can sew masks for you,’” said Hoeg. “She really is the fire that got me going.”
Still, Hoeg was hesitant to ask Basir or any of Stitch Buffalo’s other artists to work for free. The organization’s mission is to empower women economically and many of her workers’ husbands had been laid off because of the pandemic.
“We were getting a lot of people asking us to make masks but it was in a volunteer capacity. And we donated a lot of materials to volunteers to do that, but it was hard for me to ask the population that I work with to work this way, as a volunteer.”
Hoeg’s reasoning didn’t dissuade Basir from making and donating about 200 masks to the Jericho Road Community Health Center, where her family’s healthcare providers are based. And then Stitch Buffalo got its first commission—through what else but a Buffalo connection—for women to make masks and get paid.
A Buffalo resident named Gogi Gupta, who now lives in Boston and is a past customer of Stitch Buffalo, called Hoeg and said he might have an opportunity for Stitch Buffalo to partner with one of his media company’s clients. The company In Favor Of, which sources and sells handmade products from around the world, is now paying Basir and 11 other refugee women $4 per mask.
Stitch Buffalo is also now fulfilling orders from local companies, too.
“This ripple out effect is pretty great of what’s happening right now,” Hoeg said. “I am this conduit to a whole circle of people—of women—that can do this work at home and make some money.”
The Basirs say yes, the money helps as new refugees with three children at home. But mostly they’re just happy to use their profession to help others in their new city and new country.
“We came here in America and now this is our country. We have to do something here,” Palawasha said, again speaking through Abdul, who added, “We have to help the people and the government, sometimes in a bad situation, like this dangerous virus… everyone is worried. Now, we have to do something if we could.”
This isn’t the first time the Basirs have volunteered to help Americans. Indeed, that’s part of why their family got brought to the U.S. last year even though the Trump administration has made drastic cuts to refugee resettlement. Abdul worked as a transportation supervisor for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city, for six years. Before that, he spent about 20 years working for various international aid organizations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was a career path that put his family at risk of being targeted by both the Taliban and ISIS.
“We lived outside the [embassy] compound and the situation was not good for us,” Abdul Basir said. “We came here [to Buffalo] and they helped us, the U.S. embassy, we appreciate them, to save our lives.”
But the Basirs worry about two sons they were forced to leave behind because they were older than 21, which is the age limit for refugee families to bring children with them. “If they [extremist groups] know their family are in the U.S., this is a bigger problem for them,” Palawasha Basir said. “I am very happy to live here [but] the only problem that I have is my two sons.”
Further, Kabul is also the epicenter of coronavirus cases in Afghanistan. So, while Palawasha sews face masks at the impressive rate of about 100 per day, she’s also praying for the safety of her sons.
“We pray for all people in the world to be safe from this dangerous virus.”
For more stories from Buffalo Toronto Public Media’s Making Buffalo Home initiative, visit wned.org/MakingBuffaloHome.
CORRECTION 4/29 at 10:00 a.m.: The original version of this story said individual Stitch Buffalo face masks would be available for sale in the organization's online Etsy shop. The masks will only be available for purchase via In Favor Of.