Cuci Ceria Project supports livelihood of refugee and B40 women through sewing of reusable face masks

Geutanyoe Foundation director Lilianne Fan (front, in red), Gail Weeks (front, seated in middle) the seamstresses of Cuci Ceria that consists of refugees, B40 women. — Picture by Choo Choy May.
Geutanyoe Foundation director Lilianne Fan (front, in red), Gail Weeks (front, seated in middle) the seamstresses of Cuci Ceria that consists of refugees, B40 women. — Picture by Choo Choy May.

PETALING JAYA, August 12 — Purchasing face masks is not a luxury that many disadvantaged communities have during the movement control order (MCO).

And with that realisation, Cuci Ceria Project - an initiative launched on March 16 to empower women from refugee and B40 communities by getting them seamstresses jobs through the sewing of reusable face masks was founded.

The initiative, a partnership between Rohingya Kasih Centre (RKC) and Geutanyoe Foundation, initially started with distributing free face masks to refugees, migrants and other poorer communities.

Malaysia’s Geutanyoe Foundation founded in 2015 has been focusing on empowering refugees and other marginalised communities to get healthcare and education, and also cultivating refugee leadership to assist protection for their communities.

RKC, on the other hand, opened January this year to offer English lessons, childcare and livelihood programs for refugees.

Both organisations have been actively supporting refugees especially to get sustainable income to keep their families afloat especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to Geutanyoe Foundation founder and director Lilianne Fan, many refugees had called her asking for face masks along with other basic necessities such as food baskets and baby products.

“There were a lot of face masks requests from the refugees and that was when I realised that a project had to be designed to support the livelihoods of the people.

“Also because many poor communities had lost their jobs to the Covid-19 pandemic and as a result, many were suffering financially to keep their families afloat.”

“I didn’t want vulnerable communities to become more vulnerable because the pandemic might last for a long time,” she said.

“But what my team and I can do for the moment is empowering them with jobs.”

Handmade reusable face masks made by the refugees, B40 women come in different patterns and colours. — Picture by Choo Choy May.
Handmade reusable face masks made by the refugees, B40 women come in different patterns and colours. — Picture by Choo Choy May.

Fan said that three Afghan refugee women who were first roped in had sewing skills and excess fabrics at home to stitch the face masks.

“We had begun using excess cloth first before we received sponsorships in the form of cash and fabrics to continue making face masks for communities in need for free.

“A total of 6,760 face masks were given to refugees, migrant workers and poorer communities concentrated in the Klang Valley and also in Kedah during the MCO period.

“The face masks were either given separately or were given together with other basic hygiene kits tailored specifically for communities in need to fulfil their urgent needs,” she said.

Selling reusable face masks and incorporating a work schedule

The selling of the reusable face masks only took place in May after Fan and Cuci Ceria program coordinators realised that the project could help generate income for the women and help their communities too.

According to Cuci Ceria’s program coordinator Gail Weeks, she said that for each face mask sold, it helps sponsor two other face masks for any community in need and pay the women’s salaries.

Since the past two weeks, women from the B40 communities staying in have also joined in the sewing of the face masks to support their families alongside the refugee women.

“In total, we have 12 seamstresses that consist of nine refugee women and three from the Ampang B40 groups.

“Till date, we have sold 2,904 face masks.”

Weeks also said that the women work from their own homes and they would meet once a week at the Geutanyoe Foundation office to submit their face masks that they’ve been working on.

On how these refugees and B40 women had joined the programme, Weeks said that most of them had sewing backgrounds or knew the basics of sewing and stitching.

“During that once a week meeting, program coordinators including myself would check to make sure that the face masks meet the requirements and follow the templates given.

“They are also paid on a weekly basis when they hand in their completed face masks and new fabrics would be given to them to make a new batch of face masks for the following week.”

Asked as to why the women were given the flexibility to work from home and were trusted to work on their own capacities, Weeks said that it was because the women are all reliable seamstresses.

“There was once when one of the face masks handed in had missed an important stitch, and one of the ladies who handed it took the mask back home to repair it and brought it back within an hour.

“It also shows how dedicated and trustworthy they are in completing the face masks and being professional even in their own homes such as not leaving the fabrics on the floor and so on.

“And it’s them who are always so enthusiastic to make and design these face masks using their sewing talents.”

Weeks also said that all the seamstresses and program coordinators have a common Whatsapp group where they would communicate with each other since the women work from their respective homes.

She also said that the face masks are sold only at Mont Kiara’s So Moreish Cafe and priced at RM15 for an adult mask while the children’s face mask is RM10 each.

Supporting livelihoods of refugees and B40 women

The refugee seamstresses under Cuci Ceria have grown to also include those from Myanmar and Pakistan while the B40 women are those from the  Ampang area.

Anisa, a refugee from Afghanistan who has been staying in Malaysia for the past three years is thankful for the opportunity given under the Cuci-Ceria Project.

“I used to work in a bazaar selling simple handicrafts but the job was irregular so it was difficult to earn a steady income.

Anisa sewing a face mask in her own home. — Picture by Lilianne Fan.
Anisa sewing a face mask in her own home. — Picture by Lilianne Fan.

“But under Cuci Ceria, I am able to receive a regular income to pay for my house rental, utilities, food, and other expenses through the sewing of face masks.

“I am also the sole breadwinner of my family as my husband who was a carpenter in Afghanistan is unable to work here as most of the carpentry work is machine-based, and he is unable to find a job here.”

Anisa also has a three-year-old child.

Nurjan Bi, another refugee from Myanmar who has 21 years of experience in sewing clothes back in her home country was also delighted to be working for Cuci-Ceria.

“Back in Myanmar, I learned the art of sewing through my family and had sewn clothes for people back in my home country. I’ve also picked up additional sewing techniques even when I came to Malaysia through the sewing classes by the RKC.

“Apart from the steady income under Cuci Ceria, she is also able to make friends with other seamstresses and the program coordinators too.

“I’ve met so many kind and helpful people under this initiative and I’m so happy for that.”

One of the B40 ladies who wanted to be identified as Yusliza. said that under the Cuci Ceria initiative, she is able to help support her family.

“My husband who worked as a bus driver struggled with getting an income when schools were closed during the MCO and that was when life became hard for us.

“As such, sewing face masks with my other friends has been an empowering experience for us coupled with the fact that I too have earned a certificate in tailoring.”

For Noraishah Abdullah who is a housewife, the seamstresses job came at a very timely manner for her.

“I have five children who are all still studying, while my husband is working as a security guard and with the job, I am able to support my family alongside my husband.

“I have also learned the various sewing techniques from Youtube which has helped me greatly in making the face masks.

Noraishah Abdullah who has been in the Cuci Ceria initiative enjoys the fellowship she has with her new friends. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Noraishah Abdullah who has been in the Cuci Ceria initiative enjoys the fellowship she has with her new friends. — Picture by Choo Choy May

“Apart from that, I can also improve on my English communication skills when I talk to my other friends and that’s another reason why I like working with Cuci Ceria.”

Cuci Ceria project is also looking to expand its sewing team by roping in other refugees, and women from disadvantaged societies and are also looking to partner with other restaurants who would understand Cuci Ceria’s vision before selling their face masks in those eateries.

For more information on Cuci Ceria initiative, head over to their Facebook page.

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