Fostering friendship and unity one stitch at a time
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By Francesca Fontanini in Maputo, Mozambique
The atmosphere at ‘Jacqueline Modele’, a refugee-run business in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, is one of warmth and camaraderie. Colourful clothes and reams of vibrant African fabric add to the ambience.
At the centre of it is Jacqueline Zandamela, a Congolese refugee and the brains behind the business, which she built from the ground up, with little more than her passion for designing clothes.
Nearly 27 years ago, she fled violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with her now deceased husband and two children.
The thought of starting life afresh in a foreign country was overwhelming for Jacqueline, but she knew she had to try.
“To get here, I had to sacrifice a lot for my family’s sake. But it has been worth it,” says the 55-year-old, who took on multiple jobs to care for her family, while trying to save the little money she had left over.
Back home, she had studied sewing and dressmaking, so she decided to put her skills to good use. She bought a sewing machine with her savings and started making clothes from her home.
Her flair for design, inspired by contemporary African fashions, soon caught people’s attention. Her Mozambican neighbours spread word of her skills across the city and her client base grew to the point that she was able to relocate the business from her home to premises in Maputo’s city centre.
The high demand for her garments gave her the idea to start recruiting and training interested refugee and Mozambican women in how to sew and run a successful business. So far, she has trained more than 100 refugees and locals.
Klaudia, one of the refugees trained by Jacqueline, sees her as more than just a seamstress.
“She is a symbol of hope and unity in the community,” she says.
There is a friendly, though professional atmosphere in her shop, which is divided into a showroom and workshop where Jacqueline’s tailors and seamstresses create beautiful African-inspired outfits.
“You can find a range of fashionable clothes and incredible dresses here. Jacqueline always has suggestions on what best suits her clients. It’s well worth a visit!” says one regular customer.
Anabelle Mugabe, one of Jacqueline’s Mozambican staff members, appreciates the skills she acquired under her tutelage.
“I consider her my mentor and personal life coach because she really inspires me and always encourages us to face life’s challenges,” she says. “I feel more confident and independent as I can support my family with my work.”
Like many businesses, Jacqueline’s has been impacted by Covid-19. As client orders dropped off, she had to cut her staff of 11 to the current five.
Although she has been struggling to pay the shop’s monthly rent and support her family, she has not stopped making plans for the future and is considering opening a Facebook account to sell clothes online. She is also thinking of starting a children’s clothing line and is looking into her long-term goal of opening a professional training centre to teach sewing. She has already approached local authorities for information on how to start the process.
Samuel Chakwera, the UN Refugee Agency’s Representative in Mozambique highlights the importance of advocating for the socio-economic integration of refugees into the society.
“Local integration is a complex and gradual process with legal, economic, social and cultural dimensions,” says Chakwera, adding, “Jacqueline’s example should motivate us to continue working with Government, civil society and other stakeholders for refugees’ effective integration in all spheres of the society.”
Jacqueline’s outreach efforts have taken her to new frontiers – she is currently giving sewing courses to about 20 women prisoners, to help them get back on their feet.
That the women expressed their deep appreciation for her by sewing a piece with her children’s names on it gives her much joy. It is such gestures that motivate her to continue with her efforts to bring together refugees and locals.
“I am eternally grateful to the people of Mozambique for their generosity and solidarity towards refugees,” she says. “I was given another opportunity at life and a chance to realize my dream, so I extend the same support to those who need it.”
The UN Refugee Agency