Refugee tailors step up the fight against COVID-19
Kiziba is Rwanda’s oldest refugee camp. Situated in Rwanda’s Western Province, it was opened in 1996 after the start of civil war in neighboring DRC spilled over into Rwanda’s borders. The camp is a bit quieter these days, with 17,000 refugees—mostly Congolese—remaining there.
But, like everywhere else in the world, last year the residents and Alight teams in Kiziba faced a new challenge—how to stay safe and keep people protected from COVID-19. Suddenly, Alight teams had to manage many operations remotely, cutting down on cornerstone programs like gender-based violence prevention awareness campaigns and hand washing campaigns—anything that would require large groups of people to gather. Our once powerful volunteer source was difficult to maintain, as people needed to stay inside and limit their interactions. Even so, the team managed to keep the most vital operations running—like providing safe and clean water—and setting up 80+ additional hand washing stations so that residents could follow COVID-prevention guidelines.
But luckily, there were already groups in Kiziba who were ready to meet the challenge posed by the pandemic.
The Twegerane Cooperative (which means “let’s be together” in Kinyarwanda), began working together 15 years ago. Inspired by the idea that affordable apparel wasn’t readily available for purchase in the camp, they joined forces to produce beautiful clothes made of Kitenge, a favorite print material worn by most Congolese women and men. With ten women and three men in the group, many of whom are self-taught, they’re able to provide the Kiziba community with an ongoing supply of beautiful dresses, suits, tablecloths…whatever they might need tailored. Alight has walked alongside this group for many years, jumping in to provide support as they grew. A few years ago, we helped them build a new tailoring shop, which they’re still using to operate out of today.
Now, Twegerane have directed their considerable talents toward one of the camp’s biggest pressing needs—making masks to help prevent COVID-19. In a joint effort with Alight, the group got to work prototyping face masks to ensure that the Kiziba community had affordable masks to wear, in a print that they identify with and enjoy. We can all understand the rise of “mask fashion” that has taken hold around the world—Kiziba is no different.
“When the COVID-19 lockdowns first happened,” said Zuberi Ugirashebuja, the Site Manager in Kiziba, “the government required that everyone have a mask. The challenge was, the masks were initially in short supply, and high demand. The group’s response was a way to jump in and support the situation, part of participation in the camp-wide effort to prevent the spread of the virus.”
The situation was alleviated when UNHCR got an additional shipment of face masks, which eased the pressure on families and the cooperative to get authorization and produce quickly. But the group’s willingness to jump in, experiment, and join the effort was indicative of their talent and capabilities—not to mention their generosity of spirit. And, it was all a part of Alight’s quick impact economic support, helping businesses and communities survive, throughout the height of the crisis.
“So many people come to Twegerane because there aren’t a lot of tailors in the camp,” said Zuberi. Their quality and abilities stand out in Kiziba, not only keeping the residents smartly dressed, but ready to take on the next challenge—whatever that may be.
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