By Colin Murphy
At first glance, the two sewing machines on Gina’s front porch look ordinary. They sit on a modest wooden table surrounded by plastics bags of fabric, dresses and t-shirts hanging from racks. The house where Gina, her children, and her sewing machines live is in the middle of El Floron 4 – one of the roughest neighborhoods of Portoviejo, Ecuador. Gina’s setup may be modest, but together with an upstart group of seamstresses, she is doing something extraordinary.
Gina is the leader of an association of eight women who named themselves “Sewing Without Borders.” She’s from Ecuador, but that actually makes her unique among the group. All the other women are from Venezuela. They came to Ecuador fleeing the economic and political crisis in their home country. While many Venezuelan migrants are met with xenophobia and discrimination, Gina approaches the Venezuelan women in the group as equals. “We all respect each other, no matter where someone is from,” she says.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Ecuadorians and Venezuelans alike found themselves without work. AVSI Ecuador’s “Activados” project (funded by UNHCR) provided seed capital for entrepreneurship for Venezuelans and Ecuadorians in Manabi Province. Sewing Without Borders formed through this process, and they set to work making facemasks to protect people from COVID, as well as canvas bags that AVSI used to distribute personal hygiene and household cleaning products throughout the city.
These days, when we think of start-ups, we often picture rooms full of sleek laptops and shiny logos and ad campaigns. The women of Sewing Without Borders have none of these things – they work out of their own homes – but they have built a successful business together. As they worked making hundreds of masks and other textile products, their association became more cohesive. They each do an equal amount of work and they share the profits evenly. They have transitioned into making other items, and now they are beginning to market their own brand with a catalog of products.
Gina wants to sell pajamas and clothes for girls. She has already made some, and she is excited for what the future holds. There is potential for the association’s clothing line to get picked up by local retailers, and UNHCR’s Made51 program will feature some of their traditional Ecuadorian and Venezuelan textile products in its catalog. When asked if she is the master seamstress, Gina is quick to say that she is just one of the students. She is humble about her skills, but her smile reveals a tremendous pride in her work and the relationships formed with fellow seamstresses. They have found something invaluable – a group of women who trust one another and support each other’s success.