Sew Good's Syrian, Malaysian and Pasifika Mamas

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 20 November 2017

Julia Milne is having a moment.

She’s the Project Coordinator for “Common Unity Project Aotearoa”, a charity supporting local enterprise and at their home in Wellington’s Remakery’s, she’s thanking the many volunteers who make it all work. “We love you!”

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The Remakery is a two-storey warehouse-turned community centre in the culturally diverse community of Epuni, Wellington and is home to a movement of people committed to creating authentic change where it’s needed most. Common Unity Project Aotearoa is one of 22 (and growing) initiatives at The Remakery, and have launched The Sew Good Cooperative an initiative that repurposes old fabrics and textiles into brand new, useful items as well as creating new employment opportunities.

Singled out for special praise by Julia is Salona, who she credits with helping to keep the Sew Good volunteers and its part-time employees (known as “Mamas”) warmly woven together as a team. They’re a diverse group of women from many different parts of the world but Salona says it’s all about being there for each other no matter what.

“The Syrian Mamas, they’ve been here since the beginning … And then there’s the likes of me, who is Maori and Niuean and Dah who is Malaysian.”

“We get together once or twice a week. But because we have so much fun we want to come every day. It’s almost a home away from home.” Salona says. “We gather upstairs [and] because there’s so much demand for it, we also open a sewing collective downstairs thanks to Jill who is wheelchair-bound. We’re always open, with open arms – except Sunday, Sunday is a rest day.”

Dah (Malaysia) and Habiba (Syria) sell homemade treats at The Remakery

Dah (Malaysia) and Habiba (Syria) sell homemade treats at The Remakery Photo: RNZ Lynda Chanwai-Earle

At the food stall, homemade Malaysian dishes sit next to traditional Syrian treats. The Malaysian food comes from Dah, a survivor of the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia and now the Epuni Primary School cook while Habiba, a former-refugee from Syria, has contributed the treats from her homeland. Habiba comes to the Remakery every week to offer her sewing skills and to catch up with new friends like Salona.

Kelly Ewing, an accountant by trade, is a core member of Common Unity and she shows me around.  Each project has been allocated a room to display their home-community-made creations, with offerings from newcomers the Affordable Food Cooperative as well as the more established Urban Kai Gardens and the Honey Beeple Collective. 

The Sew Good studio is upstairs, a colourful and homely space filled with made-new items from recycled material. All the materials are donated; old New Zealand Post uniforms that had been destined for the landfill are transformed into grocery bags.

Cloth bags made from op-shop clothing are ideal for foods like pasta, rice and beans while net curtains make breathable bags for fruit and vegetables.

The aim is to reduce waste and ultimately make plastic bags unnecessary. Delightfully, baby bibs made from recycled vintage cloth are a huge hit with the public attending the launch.

Kelly introduces me to film and television costumer Sally Gray who works two days a week here as a sewing instructor. Next door to the sewing room is the nursery, staffed by volunteer baby-wranglers, usually elderly people or senior students keen on nanny experience.

“There’s a lot of babies hanging out usually,” says Sally, “so to keep them safe and away from the machines they can hang out in that room over there.”

Sewing Tutor Linda (left), Sew Good mama Safaa and tutor Sally Gray at The Remakery, Wellington

Sewing Tutor Linda (left), Sew Good mama Safaa and tutor Sally Gray at The Remakery, Wellington Photo: RNZ Lynda Chanwai-Earle

During a sewing session, Sally and another tutor Linda show Syrian mama Safaa how to make bags from recycled advertising billboard banners. Around them, sheets of billboard plastic destined for landfill are now being repurposed into water-proof laptop, swimming and make-up bags.

The laptops bags were tutor Linda’s idea. She’s running a new alterations/mending service for Common Unity. She tells me she suffers from depression and finds the warm environment of the Remakery a joy.

Linda recently knitted 100 children's’ jerseys to sell at the Remakery “For $20 each, or I’ll give them away if a needy person would like one. Size two to three years.”

Safaa has found the meaningful work and new friendships she has formed at the Remakery to be vital towards her resettlement. Safaa learned to sew as a child but the new skills she has gained here plus regular English (ESOL) lessons held nearby mean the end of the social isolation she felt as a new migrant.

“I am from Syria, go learn sewing machine – now – learn more. I like sewing machine. People, friends, because – learn speak English.”

Starring:

The Sew Good Mamas: Salona, Habiba, Aisha, Mona, Safaa, Dah, Rose, Ennemiek and Amanda

Tutors: Sally Gray and Linda

Common Space Unity Project Team: Kylie Ewing and Julia Milne.