Fatima, a refugee from Mali, uses a sewing machine to make face covers at a workshop in Niamey

Fatima, a refugee from Mali, uses a sewing machine to make face masks at a workshop in Niamey. © UNHCR/UNHCR

In Niger, UNHCR-trained artisans and dressmakers stitch up to 40 washable and stylish face covers per day to protect wearers and those around them.

By Marlies Cardoen

NIAMEY, Niger – Like many Tuareg women, Fatima, 43, learned years ago how to embroider from her neighbours in one of the Sahelian villages set amidst the rocky outcrops of the Ader Douchi hills nearby Menaka, in eastern Mali.

“I am a traditional Tuareg artisan. I produce and repair leather items for my community,” she explained while showing a photo of a stunning pelt footstool on her phone. “Sewing leatherware is part of my artisan ancestry.”

Fatima focuses intently as she puts on the final stiches to a white mouth mask. “I was living alone with my child… When armed groups started to destroy neighbouring villages, I had to flee. I joined a distant family member in Niger. At least here I live in peace”.

“People are scared to leave their houses.”

Today, Fatima lives in a traditional Tuareg tent on the outskirts of Niamey, the capital city of Niger. She is the only one in her artisan community who knows how to sew and has received a UNHCR-sponsored electric sewing machine to help grow her needlework business.

“The outbreak of the coronavirus has heavily impacted my artisan business. When I cannot sell my artifacts, I don’t have money to eat. Nowadays people are scared to leave their houses. Nobody comes to buy my products”.

Even before the confirmation of the first cases, the Niger government had swiftly adopted preventive measures to halt the spread of the virus. Along with a curfew and the complete isolation of Niamey, authorities made it compulsory to wear face coverings in the city.

Zeinabou, 25, is a Malian refugee and mother. She works in a modest sewing shop in an underprivileged area of Niamey.

When she was a little girl, she dreamed of becoming a hairdresser and opening a beauty salon in Menaka. Violence has ruined her dream.

“I was a widow with an 11-month-old baby when Menaka was under siege. With my mother and brothers, we walked for days until we reached the Nigerien border. From there, a car took us to the capital.”

Today, she is well integrated into the Nigerien society and jokes around with her female Nigerien colleagues in the shop. She has married Zakoye, a Nigerien man from the neighbourhood. They now have a baby.

Woman like Zeinabou and Fatima maintain the link with their traditional culture but bring skills and added value to the local economy. “These refugee women are resilient, despite the hardships they have faced and the circumstances in which they have found themselves when arriving in Niger,” explained Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR’s Representative to Niger.

Just as Zeinabou, Fatima sells her masks to Nigerien street vendors who popped up on every corner in the busy town of Niamey since WHO declared the pandemic.

“I sell my products for 300 West African Francs (50 US cents) per unit but my masks are sold at a higher price on the street. I realize this is a temporary business but with the money I make, I can continue to support my three children.”

“My masks are white, grey and blue. But some clients also request customized face masks in African wax,” added Zeinabou. She applies the well-known motto “you call, we deliver.”

Many people in Niger use common local items like Tuareg turbans or the Muslim niqab, which covers their face apart from the eyes, to protect their nose and mouth, or hand-made masks from simple cloth.

“Every person can afford these ecological, washable items and their use won’t further stress the supply of the limited stock of medical masks,” added Morelli. “Our aim is for every refugee and every member of the host community to have locally produced masks.”

Designers and businesswomen such as Malian refugee Mariama, aged 55, have well understood that the Corona mask is today’s most coveted accessory.

Zeinabou wears one of the 40 face masks she makes each day in Niamey

Zeinabou wears one of the 40 face masks she makes each day in Niamey. © UNHCR/UNHCR

Mariama is the head of the refugee women’s group in her neighbourhood and has benefitted from several UNHCR trainings, including on financial education and marketing.

“The poor cannot afford fashionable niqabs and end up buying masks in the street. Those who have money prefer to wear tailored niqabs. I have received tons of orders from wealthy clients,” Mariama said.

Back in Mali she made linen bed covers for cold winter nights. When the Tuareg rebellion kicked off in her hometown, Menaka, she had to leave everything behind and flee.

After months on the road, she found safety in Niger’s capital, Niamey. “I literally lost everything when I fled. All my precious Malian fabrics were stolen.”

“I stay in my room and don’t leave my house.”

In Niamey, Mariama makes face coverings look stylish. “Some clients ask me to make traditional Muslim niqabs in their favorite color. Other ones bring their preferred flowery fabrics. I make different models in all sizes.”

Mariama has high blood pressure and cannot stand the heat during the hot season, as temperatures raise up to 45° nowadays during the months of April-June. “I stay in my room and don’t leave my house. I am not taking any risk,” she said.

“Since anyone can be infected without knowing it and spread the infection, everyone should cover their nose and mouth,” added Zeinabou.

“And customers must keep their face masks clean and wash them often,” she stressed. “People should protect themselves, but also the people around them.”

“UNHCR can count on vital partners to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Niger: the refugees themselves! They are first line actors. The story of Zeinabou shows what a dynamic role they play in the overall response,” said Morelli. “Their new home country is facing a crisis and they have decided that it is time to give back to those who have once generously welcomed and included them.”

All three refugee women eagerly follow news on the effects the virus is having on Niger, a country with an already fragile health system, and strictly apply prevention measures.

Mariama has placed a wash basin and soap in front of her house and has bought hydroalcoholic gel. “Without washing your hands, you don’t get in,” she added in a severe voice.

“I wash my hands several times a day with soap but am terrified of what this disease may do to my loved ones,” said Fatima. “I pray to God every day to be spared disaster.”

After fleeing violence and conflict in northern Mali, 58,599 Malian refugees are now living in Niger, in one of the four sites in the regions of Tillabery and Tahoua, which border Mali and Burkina Faso, in western Sahel, or in big cities such as the capital, Niamey, where they gradually have started to rebuild their lives.

UNHCR has long worked with refugees on programmes of socio-economic inclusion. These encompass a broad range of activities, from livelihood to toiletries’ production, from support to artisan manufacturing to enterprise development.

UNHCR has launched its global coronavirus emergency plan with an appeal for US$255 million to support preparedness and response in situations of forced displacement over the next nine months. Niger is one of the priority countries where additional funds are needed to scale up measures in UNHCR’s field operations to help respond to COVID-19.

Originally published on UNHCR on 1 May 2020

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