Stitching together her place in the market

Somalia

February 9, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Safiya Mohamud Said/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Shugri at work as a tailor. Photo: Safiya Mohamud Said/Mercy Corps

It was midday and the weather wasn’t favorable. The heat was scorching and everyone wanted to be in the shade. I was in the Buulo Abow displacement camp supervising Mercy Corps program activities when my attention was grabbed by a slim lady in her late thirties who was carrying firewood on her back. I stared at her, wondering about the strength of this woman who was performing such strenuous work in such harsh weather conditions.

As I watched and sympathized with her, the load of firewood suddenly slipped off her back — she was too tired to continue her journey. I rushed to her and helped her collect the pieces. She looked so exhausted, and I offered to help her the rest of the way to her house, which she told wasn't that far. As we walked to the her home, she started to tell me her story.

This was the first time I met Shugri.

No rest, but still not enough food
Shugri originally came from the Ogaden region but, at that time, lived in the Buulo Abow camp near the city of Bossaso, in northern Somalia. Her husband stayed behind to work because they couldn't afford travel expenses for the whole family.

She lived in a small house made of cardboard with her four children — two boys and two girls. As I entered the house, I didn't see any mattresses or even enough utensils for a family of five.

The kids weren’t home, and when I asked about them she told me, “They usually go and play in the garbage sites of the camp as there is no one who is taking care of them while I am away in the field collecting firewood to make money for their living.” She said she'd have to go looking for them when she has something ready to eat.

Shugri was cooking the first meal of the day for her children as she continued telling me about her life. It was heartbreaking to know that these little kids didn’t get anything to eat until so late in the day.

“My neighbors keep telling me that I am a very hard-working lady who doesn’t rest and strives for her family. But I feel disappointed when I can’t offer enough food to my children,” Shugri said in a breaking voice.

Shugri had walked almost two kilometers to collect the firewood, her only source of income. The road is not safe, full of risks from animals and men alike.

“Thank God that I didn’t meet any incidents on the road yet! But the risk is there, and I am always worried about that," she explained. "I would have stopped collecting firewood from these risky places if I had any skill so that I can earn a decent living for my children.”

Tailoring a new life

Life in this part of Somalia is not easy for Shugri and many like her. But not long after I met her, Shugri was selected to attend the local women’s skills training center that's supported by Mercy Corps. She began studying sewing and tailoring, some of the marketable skills in the town. She attended class in the morning and continued to collect firewood in the afternoon.

“It was a defining moment in my life, I was able to attend the class to learn life skills and at the same time collect the firewood to provide food to my children. It was a double toil for me, though I was very hopeful that the skill would change my life,” she said.

For three months, Shugri juggled her schooling and supporting her children. She and her fellow students struggled at times, but believed that the hard work would pay off.

And at the end, Shugri, the tailor, was given a sewing machine and basic fabrics and other supplies. She brought the machine to her small house and started sewing clothes for her neighborhood. It wasn't a flashy grand opening, and the reality is that it took some time to carve out her business.

“In the beginning, I couldn’t afford to operate in a strategic place where I can get more customers," she explained. "I needed some time to catch up with the market and the new venture."

Thriving business, smiling family

Months later, Shugri moved into a space that allowed her more room to work and the ability to attract new customers. She was now earning an income that not only provided her and her children three meals a day, but she was now able to send her eldest boy and girl, aged 6 and 5, to school. She could also afford to cover their medical bills whenever it was needed.

Later, I paid a visit to Shugri and her children, now living in a new house with as much furniture as any middle class family. Her older children were reading their lessons cheerfully. The family was full of joy and hope, and as we were chatting, I suddenly recalled the first day I met her. I couldn’t believe that this happy family came from such a state of depression. She told me that she is planning on expanding her business by adding new trends that will provide more income for her.

“I am very thankful to Mercy Corps for changing my life and giving me the support to help my family,” Shugri said with a smiling face.

As I was leaving, I felt very happy for the family. It was a new day for Shugri and the children; she had achieved a dream that seemed impossible a short time ago. But now, her reality was even better than she could have imagined.