ROME: An American costume maker living in Rome has created a dressmaking cooperative around migrant and refugee tailors, an example of initiatives cropping up in Italy to help new arrivals assimilate and make a living while they wait for decisions on their asylum requests.
Lydia Witt, 35, said she was inspired to open the Sewing Cooperative while volunteering at refugee centers, where she met many people who had worked as tailors in their home countries. She said one strong motivation was to challenge misconceptions on refugee resettlement in Europe, while helping skilled refugees get jobs and create dialogue with local residents. Before moving to Rome, Witt worked for a decade as a dressmaker for the New York City Ballet and Broadway productions.
The Sewing Cooperative — currently hosted by the Sala Uno center for contemporary arts — works with five migrants, mostly from West Africa, to make dresses on commission for clients. They use mostly colourful fabrics and create clothing according to their customers’ requests, basing the shapes on a “look book.” The pieces cost anything between 45 and 120 euros (between Dh187 and Dh503; $51 and $137).
Similar tailoring initiatives involving migrants and refugees have emerged in recent years, such as Florence-based “Crune Lab,” and multicultural clothing brand Waxmore, which launched a campaign last year to fund a training course for four asylum-seeking tailors.
On a recent August day at Witt’s studio in Rome, 26-year-old Daouda Doumbia from Ivory Coast was carefully sewing the hem on a brightly coloured skirt for an American client.
Doumbia said he fled ethnic tensions in Ivory Coast only to realise that the countries to which he had fled — Mali, Algeria and then Libya — were also dangerous. He undertook the risky sea crossing in a rubber dinghy, arriving in Italy in 2016. He received papers allowing him to work while he awaits a response on his asylum request.
Bakary Bamba was also born and raised in Ivory Coast, where he had a tailoring business. He escaped his native country, leaving his wife and two children behind, after his shop burnt down and the family of a victim in the fire threatened to kill him for revenge. Similarly to Doumbia, he had a harrowing journey through several African nations before paying a smuggler to get him to Europe.
“I feel important, I feel good today,” said Bamba, explaining he’s happy to be safe after all he’s been through. “I work, I earn some money with the activities we do.”
Witt said she wants to show that migrants arrive in Europe with “gifts and talents they’re ready to use.”
One of the misconceptions she faces is that she’s teaching the already-expert tailors how to sew.
“It’s more about creating opportunities and opening doors,” she said. “We’re learning from each other every day.”