‘These clothes were like gold’: Fashion donors give refugees the dignity to choose | Social enterprises
When she first arrived in Britain as a refugee from Nigeria six years ago, Kemi had a three-month-old daughter, a room in a shared house and £5.39 to survive each day.
Because her daughter has a dairy intolerance, much of this meager allowance went to buy food and soy milk for her baby, which meant Kemi herself was often hungry. Finding money for clothes, even at a charity shop, was out of the question.
“Children are growing every month, especially at this young age. It was hard for me [because] I had to keep us safe and warm,” Kemi says now.
The only thing to do was get up early and walk the streets with her daughter, hoping to retrieve clothes that someone might have thrown in a charity bin or on a sidewalk. “It was so shameful sometimes when people were walking by, to see me digging through the trash to find clothes to wear. [But] I didn’t care what people [thought]I had to keep my daughter safe.
After four years, Kemi was granted refugee status and got her first job interview – unsurprisingly, she had nothing to wear. Instead of having to scrabble or beg for something suitable, however, she was referred to a small social enterprise called Give Your Best, which asked about her height and the type of clothes she liked. “And they gave me three nice shirts. Those clothes were like gold to me… They asked me what I really wanted. It makes you feel valued.
The initiative had been started during the Covid lockdown by Sol Escobar, a widely traveled Uruguayan now living in Cambridge who had spent several years volunteering in refugee camps in northern France and who felt “desperate”, when Covid hit, about how badly the refugee community would be affected.
A friend put her in touch with a shelter for refugee women who, unable to shop online and with charity shops closed, had no access to any clothing. Escobar realized she had extra clothes she could donate and reached out to her friends and networks for help.
She was overwhelmed with offers, but didn’t want to overwhelm women with potentially inappropriate clothing. “So I thought, if I take pictures of all these items and put them on an Instagram page, they can all choose the things they actually want. Maybe we can eliminate that part of that imbalance of power, the refugee being the person who receives things without having the choice.
Eighteen months later, Give Your Best has processed nearly 11,000 items of clothing donated by 1,500 people and has more than 800 refugee women allowed to “shop” for free on its virtual storefront.
However, it aims for much more. Having reached the limit of donations and requests it could manage through Instagram, even with the support of hundreds of volunteers, the company has just launched a new digital platform that will allow it to go upmarket, becoming what Escobar calls “a Depop for donations”. ”.
Like the hugely successful clothing resale app, clothes are photographed and uploaded to Give Your Best, where customers select the ones they like and donors then post the item. Most importantly, no money changes hands.
Along with giving its users choice and minimizing fashion waste, Escobar says an unintended consequence has been the small but intimate bonds forged between giver and buyer. Many donors choose to include a note of support and a small gift of hygiene products or chocolates – much appreciated by recipients, but also a reminder that “on the other side of your package there is a woman who is in your size and has your fashion sense, because she’s shopping in your wardrobe”.
The new platform means they can now offer kidswear, with menswear coming soon; ultimately, they aim to open donations to others in clothing poverty and potentially share their technology to replicate the model overseas. “There’s a lot of fashion waste and a lot of people who need clothes,” Escobar says.
Having volunteered with the organization, Kemi is now its first staff member, directing women in a similar vulnerable position to a place where they too can choose clothes they like and fit, for free.
She kept a file of notes sent to her with clothes. ” They say [good] wishes, hope you enjoy your article, know that someone in the UK cares. Imagine what that does.