World Humanitarian Day, on August 19, celebrates the spirit of sharing our common humanity.
In Daresalam refugee camp in the Lake region of Chad, Jonathan dreams of his previous life, and recalls how he was abruptly forced to leave it behind.
“We are 22 tailors and dressmakers from Gamboru Ngala, a small town located at the border between Cameroon and Nigeria. We had a good reputation for the quality of clothes we made, and were well respected in the community. Then one day, everything changed. One morning, we found our names on a leaflet that had been circulated all over the city. It said that the clothes we were making for women were too short. The leaflet was signed by Boko Haram. Fearing for our safety, we were forced to leave. I left for Baga in 2012, and I stayed there until the day of the attack.”
The tailor and sewing instructor fled Baga on 3 January 2015, after Boko Haram attacked the town, to cross the border and seek refuge in Chad. He is now sharing his skills, teaching sewing to young people in the refugee camp. He told me it is the least he can do. For the young people, sewing is a crucial skill that could help them earn a living.
Too often, we forget that the first ‘humanitarian workers’ are the members of the community themselves – people like Jonathan. In an emergency, they are on the front line because they know their peers, speak the language and often have skills to share.
Learn and share
Jonathan offers sewing workshops at the camp’s Child Friendly Space, where hundreds of refugee adolescents come to enjoy recreational and learning activities that also include art classes and football games.
Under a large tent, sitting on colorful mats, girls form a circle around sewing machines, cutting assorted pieces of cloth. The clatter of the pedals punctuating the girls’ conversations, amidst the multicolored cotton fabrics scattered on the floor, make for a lively atmosphere.
I observe as Jonathan leads the class and lends a hand to those who need help. His students laugh, chat, but remain focused on their tasks. One of the students, Maimouna, 15, comes up to me and asks what I am doing here. I tease her, saying that I came to learn sewing with them. “We’re like sisters, you are welcome to join us,” she says, smiling.
Thinking about the future
Jonathan’s class offers valuable skills, as well as a respite from the struggles of the present – and that makes it a space where it is possible to think about the future.
“Most girls wanted to learn something new. I was already teaching adults when I was in Cameroon and Nigeria. This is an opportunity for me to share my experience with ‘my children’. They make me forget about all the troubles. And here, I do not feel threatened to do my job,” says Jonathan.
“When we come here, we set aside our problems and we focus on what we have to do. We can offer the clothes we make to our relatives and we have fun making them,” says Maimouna, as she cuts some yellow fabric. “Those pants are for my little brother, and that dress is a gift for a neighbor who will marry soon.”
Jonathan is confident that they are crafting something durable here. “So far, I’ve trained 12 young people, 11 girls and 1 boy. Sewing is a great way to take their minds off things they have been through. It helps them to think of their future. Who knows? Maybe, one day they will become great fashion designers. I’ve heard that there are refugees competing at the Olympics. I believe in these young people. What matters is their will.”
Aicha Chir Nour is an Editorial and Publication Officer with UNICEF Chad.