Chicago Co-Op Empowers Immigrant Women, Refugees

Blue Tin Production Mercy and Hoda
Mercy (left) and Hoda Katebi, two of the founding members of Blue Tin Production Co-operative, discuss a pattern on Wednesday, April 24, 2019, at the atelier in the American Islamic College in Chicago. Pinar Istek / Round Earth Media/WBEZ
Blue Tin Production Mercy and Hoda
Mercy (left) and Hoda Katebi, two of the founding members of Blue Tin Production Co-operative, discuss a pattern on Wednesday, April 24, 2019, at the atelier in the American Islamic College in Chicago. Pinar Istek / Round Earth Media/WBEZ

Chicago Co-Op Empowers Immigrant Women, Refugees

The war in Aleppo, Syria, destroyed Safiya’s life.

Her husband, son, mother, brothers and sisters were all killed in the war. Safiya managed to escape with her remaining four children to Jordan, where they lived for three years. Then, in 2016, the family made Chicago its new home.

Despite the trauma of war and grief, Safiya had to find a way to navigate a new country without knowing the language. She said her children inspired her every day to keep going.

“[Safiya’s son] didn’t go to school for five years because of the war and came here and had to learn a new language, and right now he’s on honor roll and getting awards, going to awards assemblies,” Safiya said through a translator. WBEZ is not using Safiya’s real name because she’s a refugee.

But Safiya has a valuable skill: She knows how to make clothes.

Safiya is one of four refugee and immigrant women advocating for an ethical garment industry in Chicago. Their new sewing co-op, Blue Tin Production, aims to empower immigrant women and, in the process, create a sustainable garment manufacturing option for designers and consumers.

Hoda Katebi, a fashion blogger and activist, raised over $40,000 in crowdsourcing and foundation funds to launch Blue Tin in 2019.

“This project came from my own interest in wanting to start a clothing line in the U.S., that was obviously ethically produced [with] sustainable fabrics, and seeing the huge gap that exists in domestic manufacturing in the United States, in which the majority of the clothes made in America are made in prisons,” Katebi said.

The name for Blue Tin comes from the blue metal cookie container that’s often used to store sewing materials.

“It definitely has been so much like a project of the community here in Chicago,” Katebi said. “It is definitely so much driven by everybody, all of the members here since we are a workers co-operative. Everyone gets to own and run the business and decide the direction that it goes in what we do everyday. So that, itself, is also really exciting.”

And Katebi said immigrant women having ownership in the co-op is important because many women in developing countries who make the clothes we wear in the U.S. are paid low wages and are sometimes physically or sexually abused.

“People just don’t understand how clothes are made,” she said. “And that itself is a huge barrier for people to understand why clothes are so cheap and that violence has gone into creating the clothes to make it so cheap.”

Blue Tin pattern layout
A seamstress and four founding member of Blue Tin Production Co-operative lays out pattern pieces made out of muslin on Wednesday, April 24, 2019, at the atelier in the American Islamic College in Chicago. Muslin is a type of cotton fabric widely used within the fashion industry to test the fit of a garment before cutting the more expensive fabrics to make the final garment. Pinar Istek

The Blue Tin sewing co-op has become like home for the women who own it.

Unlike some women in the co-op, when Mercy joined Blue Tin, she was not escaping war but an abusive husband.

After Mercy migrated from Nigeria to Chicago to join her husband, she faced daily cruelty from him.

“All that time, from 2003 ... to 2017, it was like a living hell,” Mercy said.

She was in a new country and completely dependent on her husband. But she knew how to sew. She bought a sewing machine and started making clothes. Mercy’s ability to sew became her ticket out of an abusive marriage.

When she started looking for work, Mercy said her children told her, “Ma, I don’t see you working for somebody. You are your own boss.”

For Mercy, Blue Tin came along at the right time. “This is an answer to prayer,” she said.

Despite the language barriers, Mercy said the women are like sisters.

“Because they don’t speak English and I don’t speak Arabic, I thought that was going to be an issue,” she said. “But no. Even though they don’t speak, they just point to things, and they get it.”

And that’s because these women have a universal language: sewing.

For Katebi, clothes and fashion are ways to continue her political work — because she says clothes are inherently political.

“Fashion is so political in terms of where it’s produced,” Katebi said. “The fact that the majority of our clothes are created in South East Asia. What does that say about power dynamics when the majority of that is consumed in the West, and we have no relationship to the maker.”

And the way we dress is also political — more so for some groups than others, she said.

For example, black men who wear hoodies or baggy pants are politicized, Katebi explained. So are black women for the way they wear their hair, she added.

Muslim women who wear a hijab are also politicized, she said.

In Oklahoma, where she grew up, Katebi said her mother had a difficult time finding work because she wore a hijab. Katebi wishes her mother could have taken advantage of a project like Blue Tin.

Blue Tin Hoda Katebi
Hoda Katebi (right), one of the founding members of Blue Tin Production Co-operative, and Reema Rustom, an intern and translator for the Co-operative, laugh during a conversation with Mercy, another Blue Tin seamstress and founding member, on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 at the atelier in the American Islamic College in Chicago. Pinar Istek / Round Earth Media/WBEZ

“This is obviously a very personal project ... knowing the legacy of my own family and the struggles that they faced when I was very young, but I continue to face to this day,” Katebi said. “And what with the Muslim ban and so much heightened anti-immigrant, anti-refugee sentiment in the U.S., it makes a space like this all the more important.”

This story was produced in association with the Round Earth Media, a program of the International Women’s Media Foundation.

María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.