A refugee’s dream of fashion design plays like music on a sewing machine

Tailored for success

Dan Oloo
Angelle Cathrina Mbirize
UNICEFKenya/DanOloo
05 February 2020

Deep inside the narrow alleyways of Kakuma 3, a refugee camp in arid northern Kenya, the sounds of a manual sewing machine are often heard. The distinct voice of a young woman singing  also rises above the bustle of the crowded camp. The melody of machine and voice is only ever interrupted by the delightful laughs of a young child.

This music of camp life comes from the home of Angelle Cathrina Mbirize, 18, who has been living in Kakuma, home to almost 200,000 refugees, for the past seven years. In fear of her life in her war torn country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, she fled to Kenya with her family in search of safety and a new beginning.

The mother of one wears a pair of large headphones that blast East African hits, which she knows by heart and sings along to. She escapes the heat under a shady tree, seated at a Singer sewing machine, which she powers with her feet. Her daughter, Faida, 2, plays cheerfully close by.

“I’m not just a tailor,” says Mbirize, as she removes the headphones. “I like to think of myself as a fashion advisor and creator of new trends.”

Mbirize’s dreams of a better life have recently been given a boost as she graduated last year from a three-month tailoring course run at a training centre inside the camp, which is supported by EU Humanitarian Aid through UNICEF and the Lutheran World Federation.

The mother of one wears a pair of large headphones that blast East African hits, which she knows by heart and sings along to. She escapes the heat under a shady tree, seated at a Singer sewing machine, which she powers with her feet. Her daughter, Faida, 2, plays cheerfully close by.

Angelle feeds her child
UNICEFKenya/DanOloo
Angelle takes a break to feed 2-year-old Faida outside their home in Kakuma Refugee Camp.

“I’m not just a tailor,” says Mbirize, as she removes the headphones. “I like to think of myself as a fashion advisor and creator of new trends.”

Mbirize’s dreams of a better life have recently been given a boost as she graduated last year from a three-month tailoring course run at a training centre inside the camp, which is supported by EU Humanitarian Aid through UNICEF and the Lutheran World Federation.

“After I received the training, I felt empowered and happy,” she says, “I also see that the residents in the camp have confidence in me and bring me their clothes for modification.”

Mbirize’s newfound skills and confidence are a big change from her challenging past. As a child she made the difficult journey from Goma, in eastern DRC, along with her five siblings after her mother died.

The children mostly traveled by foot for more than a thousand kilometres. Tragically one of her siblings died before they finally made it to the safety of Kakuma where they received food, shelter and protection.

“To get to where I am right now has been a real struggle,” says Mbirize.

For the next five years, she went to school in the camp and settled into life as a refugee. Then, aged 16, she became pregnant. 

“I was terrified at what lay before me. I stopped going to school and would stay at home not knowing what to do. When I had Faida, life became even more difficult. I had no money to pay for all the extra needs that come with having a baby.”

Angelle working on different materials
UNICEFKenya/DanOloo
Angelle, working on different materials for a dress she is designing for a client.

However, Mbirize’s fortunes improved when she became involved with the Jitegemee Centre within the camp. It actively identifies vulnerable teenage mothers, offers to place them in three-month courses that helps them with business startup support.

Lutheran World Federation child protection officer Hilda Thuo says Kakuma is home to many teenage mothers who need training, psychosocial support and general guidance.

“We first identified vulnerable groups and listened to their needs,” says Thuo who has been working with vulnerable groups in the Kakuma refugee camp for the past 18 years. “We learned that the young girls had a lot of interest in the areas of baking, hairdressing and tailoring.”

The centre also offers to help young mothers to enroll back in school and pays their fees. Thuo says, “About half of young mothers we encounter choose to continue pursuing formal schooling while the other half opt for livelihoods training.”

Mothers who undertake training at the centre can bring their children with them, leaving them a with caretaker fondly referred to as “Mama,” as they work at their various stations.

Colourful garments
UNICEFKenya/DanOloo
Colourful garments and materials on display in the backdrop of Angelle’s workspace outside her house in Kakuma.

After fulfilling all the requirements of her tailoring course which included both practical and written testing, Mbirize was given a new sewing machine which she shares with another centre graduate.  

Now armed with high self-esteem and a vocational skillset, Mbirize says she and the other graduates are now able to cope with the rigors of being young mothers and are excited about what the future might hold.