By Sabrina Bahari
Somalilandsun- When Ekhlas Ahmed arrived in Malaysia as a refugee last year, she never thought she would go back to school, let alone make and sell fashion accessories.
The bubbly 17-year-old from Somalia is a student at Fugee School, a school for refugee children and adolescents co-founded by former Miss Malaysia Universe and child rights advocate Deborah Henry.
With schoolmates and fellow Somalians Hanin Ibrahim and Abeera Abdullah, both 17, the trio spent about six months making earrings, recently launched under the brand Fugeelah.
Besides earrings, the line also includes a clutch and two scarves featuring designs by fellow students Somalian Abu Bakar, 14, and Shanzay Ejaz, nine, from Pakistan.
A brainchild of Henry, Fugeelah was created with sustainability in mind, specifically to help Fugee School, a non-profit organisation that runs 100 per cent on donation, eventually be self-sustainable.
Founded nine years ago, the school has 160 students from Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Palestine, and is run by full-time staff, including refugees employed as teachers and assistants.
The cost of running the school, said Henry, is RM25,000 every month.
“Having run the school for so many years, we realised fundraising has increasingly become a struggle each year due to the state of the economy,” she said.
“We wanted to start a business that will not only help fund the school, but also create job opportunities and income for the students.”
The brand name was inspired by the song Fu-Gee-La by 1990s hip-hop group The Fugees — derived from the word “refugee” — and the lah is a homage to Malaysian slang.
“We intend it to be a global brand with local roots,” said Henry.
With support from friends Francisca Turner and Amy Blair — founders of homegrown fashion brands Frankitas and The Batik Boutique — and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Rotary Club of Subang, Henry got the ball rolling on Fugeelah early this year.
Turner, whose brand Frankitas is known for its chic clutches and handbags made with traditional fabric, took on the role of teaching and guiding Ekhlas, Hanin and Abeera on making earrings from scratch.
The girls would go to Turner’s boutique once or twice a week for five hours each time working on the earrings together.
“I’d gather the materials and we’d brainstorm on how the designs should be. They are involved in every part of the process, from designing, conceptualising, production to sales and marketing,” said Turner.
The dainty earrings, which come in five designs such as the Horn Crescent and Rose Petal, are made of high-quality gold pleated brass and silk cotton fabric. They are priced from RM75 to RM145 per pair.
Turner said the earrings have been selling like hot cakes, which means she and the girls have had to keep making new ones to restock.
“The girls are doing so well — they’re getting the hang of efficiency, organisation and working as a team.
Their production capacity gets better each time. Just last week alone, we’ve made at least 200 pairs. I don’t even have to monitor them anymore,” she said.
Asked why they decided to go with an accessories line, Turner said it was because they were easy to make and “women can never have enough of them”.
As for the clutch and scarves, Henry said the artworks were selected from a number of students and handed over to Blair at Batik Boutique where they were made into the finished products.
“We wanted to start small so we decided to go with only two designs for now — Alien by Abu Bakar, and Skittle by Shanzay,” said Henry.
The original paintings were digitised and printed on the fabrics.
They were then sewed at the boutique’s sewing centre that is run by a team of women from marginalised communities.
“We went with polysilk because we want the products to have a luxe feel to them, while still carrying a hint of playfulness,” said Blair, who heads the social enterprise that supports Malaysian artisans specialising in accessories made of batik.
The scarves, which can be worn in many ways, are priced at RM180 each; while the clutch — which only comes in Skittle print — is RM145.
Most importantly, added Blair, is they wanted to create products that not only support a good cause, but are also beautiful and worth buying, because “nobody wants a pity purchase”.
A beaming Ekhlas said she had been waiting a long time to fulfil her dream of becoming a businesswoman.
“I’m so happy I was given this opportunity,” she said.
Abeera said it was challenging in the beginning, but the girls eventually got the hang of it, adding that they were amazed at the result.
Hanin said the work has become her favourite thing to do.
“We’ve learned so much along the way, like to be patient and to be creative.”
Shanzay, the youngest of the lot, said she never expected her artwork could end up on a scarf and a clutch.
“I love painting and I’d love to make more,” she said.
Fugeelah accessories are available online at fugeelah.com and all profits are distributed between the Fugee School, students and artisans.