Sewing to weave links

World Humanitarian Day celebrates the spirit of sharing humanity

By Aicha Chir Nour

« 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.  »

In Daresalam refugee camp in the Lake Chad region, Jonathan dreams of his previous life. The tailor and sewing instructor has fled Baga on 3 January after the Boko Haram attack, 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, it 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, 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


Every afternoon, hundreds of refugee adolescents come to enjoy recreational activities at the Child Friendly Space, like art classes, football games, but also sewing workshops offered by Jonathan. Under a large tent, sitting on colorful mats, girls form a circle around sewing machines cutting different pieces of cloth. The sound of the pedals adds up to the girls conversations and colorful cotton fabrics are scattered on the floor in a lively atmosphere.

I am observing Jonathan leading the class and lending a hand to those that require help. They laugh, exchange, but remain focused on their tasks. One of them, Maimouna, 15, approached me and asked what I was doing here. I teased her by saying that I came to learn sewing with them. « We’re like sisters, you are welcome to join us, » she said, smiling.

Thinking forward

« 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 these adolescents. They make me forget about all the troubles. And here, I do not feel threatened to do my job,  » Jonathan adds.

« 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, while cutting a yellow fabric. « Those pants are for my little brother, and that dress is a gift for a neighbor who will marry soon”.

“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, » concludes Jonathan, confident.

In 2016, thanks to a US$ 3,000,000 grant of the Government of Japan, UNICEF was engaged in a multi-sector response, including interventions in education and Child Protection for conflict-affected children in the Lake Chad region.

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