Refugee integration in Germany

A future made to measure

Integration in the workforce and a sustainable business idea: the Frankfurt dressmakers' studio offering prospects to refugee women – and becoming the go-to place for the region's start-up labels in the process. By Esther Felden

Reyhane cuts the fabric to size with a practised hand, a look of complete concentration on her face. Then she irons the pieces, sits down at the sewing machine and sews them together. Blouses, dresses, coats. Whatever the clients of the "Stitch by Stitch" atelier have ordered. Reyhane is training as a seamstress there. Or rather, she's working to get her apprenticeship diploma. Reyhane has been a professional for years – she just has nothing to prove it. She's never been given employers' references or anything similar. And neither have her colleagues.

Reyhane is one of seven young women from Afghanistan and Syria who have found jobs with the social enterprise in Hesse. The two women behind the name "Stitch by Stitch" are qualified designer and social entrepreneur Nicole von Alvensleben and Claudia Frick, who studied fashion design and is a bespoke dressmaker. The idea for the project came to them just under two years ago – at a time when the images of large numbers of refugees in the summer of 2015 were still fresh.

Two women, one vision

The two were already looking to take their careers in a new direction and build a fashion business of their own. And then fate came to their aid – in the form of Frick's partner.

"Why don't you try doing something with refugees?" he said. And that question set everything in motion. Initially, Claudia Frick wasn't completely convinced by the idea; she thought it was too vague and didn't seem like something they could put into practice. On the other hand, she had spent a long time looking for a manufacturing company that could produce clothes for her boutique fashion label "Coco Lores" in small quantities. "And there are hardly any of these companies in Germany now; there was clearly a need."

Designer and socially-engaged businesswoman Nicole von Alvensleben (photo: Nicole von Alvensleben)
Integrating with a needle and thread: qualified designer and social entrepreneur Nicole von Alvensleben is responsible for the finances and organisation of the "Stitch by Stitch" atelier: "We are one big family"

Nicole von Alvensleben was quickly convinced. It made sense from a business perspective, too. "I was really hooked on the idea of finding an entrepreneurial solution for a social problem." Training refugee women in Germany to become respected dressmakers, giving them career prospects and at the same time helping them to integrate – the concept wove all these ideas together. And it convinced other people, too. The two women received Flagship Project status for their idea from the KfW-Stiftung (the German State Reconstruction Loan Corporation) and were also awarded the Frankfurt Startup Award in 2017.

A success story on fast-forward

The little business has developed rapidly in the short time since it was set up. Just nine months passed between the initial idea and the opening of the atelier in August 2016.

"To start with we had no financial backing at all. We took out a micro loan to finance ourselves," von Alvensleben explains. The initial investment was then secured with the help of a cash injection from the KfW-Stiftung. The project is now also supported by the City of Frankfurt. "But in the long term, we aim to be completely self-financing."

They started with two seamstresses and they now have seven, with an eighth in the starting blocks. And there is certainly enough interest. For one thing, the women themselves are recruiting through word-of-mouth. And for another, the workshop is also working with the national employment agency, the local job centre and with Berami, an advice centre for workforce integration in Frankfurt.

Dressmaking with German lessons

It is just after 9am. In the back room of the atelier is Nicole von Alvensleben's desk and a kitchen unit. There are seven coffee cups on the counter, each with a brightly coloured letter printed on it. They are the seamstresses' initials, von Alvensleben explains. Each of them has their own cup. A small gesture that adds to the family atmosphere of the atelier.

You sense at once that the mood on the shop floor is relaxed and familiar. Laughter rings out above the rattle of the sewing machines and the noise of the steam irons. "Coffee's ready!" the boss calls out into the work room.  The dressmakers fetch their cups and have a brief chat before going back to work.

Seamstress at work in the Frankfurt ″Stitch for Stitch″ atelier (photo: Nicole von Alvensleben)
Sewing, a global language: the seamstresses have excellent skills, say Frick and von Alvensleben – and unlike many German colleagues, many of them have also been trained in embroidery

Of course it would be easier for the women to talk in their native languages, in Dari, Farsi or Arabic. But Frick and von Alvensleben emphasise the need to speak as much German as possible at work. They don't just want their colleagues to sew well; they want them to learn the language at the same time. "That's a really important point for us," says Nicole von Alvensleben. "We have a college lecturer and a retired teacher who come in twice a week, on a voluntary basis, to give German lessons."

The language of fashion

Communication is actually very good, the company's founders tell me. Even if the women have only just arrived in Germany and can hardly speak a word of German. "The craft of dressmaking is like a universal language," says von Alvensleben. "You sew a blouse exactly the same way whether you're in Afghanistan, Syria or Germany. When Claudia's standing round the table with the women, they don't need many words."

It's only when it comes to the details that misunderstandings sometimes arise because of the language barrier, Frick adds. "But the great advantage of our work lies in the fact that we all love what we do. It doesn't matter what country or culture we come from. We are doing what we love, making things and we like doing it as a team. That's something that brings us together."

Reyhane, for example, enjoys cutting patterns. "But I like sewing too. I like everything here, actually: working with fabrics, the colours, the clothes." She speaks a little shyly into the microphone as she tells her story. She is 25 and was born in Afghanistan. But shortly after her birth, her family fled from Herat in Western Afghanistan to neighbouring Iran. That was where she grew up and went to school for nine years. Reyhane has always been familiar with the sound of sewing machines. Her father was a tailor, too and she started teaching herself the craft at the age of seven. Later, she even had her own customers.

Escape is a taboo subject

Reyhane has been in Germany for two years, having arrived with her husband and parents. She doesn't talk about the reasons they fled, or what happened during their journey. Claudia Frick and Nicole von Alvensleben don't ask questions, either. That's a conscious choice. They don't know what their employees went through in the Syrian war, or what might have happened to them on their way to Germany.

"Before we opened the workshop, a trauma expert urged us not to ask about their stories," von Alvensleben explains. "He said 'you never know what it might trigger'. And we're not the right people to deal with what might come out. You need trained therapists for that."

At some point the women might open up and want to talk of their own accord, she says. But only they can decide when the time is right. The company's founders believe their most important job is to provide their employees with a space where they can feel safe and look forward. "Everyone has their own past. But now we're building a future together. That's important."

When they first arrived, you could see these women felt insecure and had a lot on their minds, von Alvensleben tells me. "But our community here just takes these women in. I get the impression that after a while, they are able to leave their troubles at the door."

A popular service

Nicole von Alvensleben's phone keeps ringing: one call is a conversation with the job centre about a potential new employee and her residence permit. And then there are enquiries and orders from clients. Von Alvensleben tells me that "Stitch by Stitch" now has between 20 and 25 regular customers. They are start-up labels from Frankfurt and the surrounding area, who commission the workshop to produce small ranges for them. Designers bring in their patterns and fabric samples and the women use them to produce the required number of items, sometimes five, sometimes 100 pieces of clothing.

Seamstresses in the Frankfurt ″Stitch for Stitch″ atelier (photo: Nicole von Alvensleben)
A model for the successful integration of refugees: The little business has developed rapidly in the short time since it was set up. Just nine months passed between the initial idea and the opening of the atelier in August 2016. They started with two seamstresses and they now have seven, with an eighth in the starting blocks. And there is certainly enough interest

The women at "Stitch by Stitch" earn nine euros an hour – the wage is slightly lower for inexperienced employees at the start of their training. Money to build themselves a future.

But something else is at least as important: "We offer a classic apprenticeship here: the women go to technical college as well. Our seamstresses are really very talented. But none of them has any official training or a certificate from their homeland," says von Alvensleben. "And in Germany it's very important to be able to show qualifications and papers. Our seamstresses know that, too. That's why many of them were also interested in doing an apprenticeship."

On the way to creating their own brand

The young women are still purely service providers, sewing things that other people have designed. But it won't be that way forever. Claudia Frick and Nicole von Alvensleben already have more plans for the future. They want to grow the dressmaking workshop – perhaps to double its current size. They also want to do more to bring out their workers' creative potential. One day, the dressmakers will be designing clothes themselves, bringing in influences from their homeland.

Claudia Frick's eyes light up when she talks about it.  "As a fashion designer I keep seeing things that excite me. The way the women make Western fashions their own, for example. They don't like to show a lot of skin, so they just wear layers, like a low-cut s dress with a shirt underneath."

These influences are very modern right now, she says. Frick wants to create cross-cultural fashion with her dressmakers. "We want to make fashion that everyone can wear. It shouldn't be purely western or specifically Islamic."

Reyhane also dreams of designing things herself. In any case, she wants to stay in Germany once she has finished her training and carry on working for "Stitch by Stitch". Frankfurt is home for her now. The place where she was given the chance of a future, working in her dream job.  

Esther Felden

© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

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