Farid Chhab, from Syria, followed his two young children and his then wife to Sweden in 2014. He tells The Local about how he has found a way to use his skills to give back to the country that welcomed him.
Shortly after arriving in Gothenburg, Farid Chhab was moved to Restad Gård asylum centre in nearby Vänersborg on December 1st 2014. There he was welcomed by the Support Group, a collaborative network of volunteers that organizes activities and supports newcomers while they await decisions on their asylum applications.
How did you get involved with the repair work?
The support group invited us [newcomers] to a meeting where they told us about the activities they run and asked if we needed any help. I went to the meeting and listened the whole time. I heard that there was a sewing room at the centre which had been locked for a long time because no one had wanted to work there voluntarily.
I raised my hand and said: "I’m a tailor and would like to open that room."
They asked if I would be happy to manage it voluntarily, because they couldn't offer money. I told them: "You offered us help and guidance without asking for money, and I will do the same."
We opened the room and I started working there, mending and repairing the refugees’ clothes.
At the start we needed some equipment for the workshop, like an embroidery machine, a second sewing machine, threads, fabrics, tape measure, pins and so on. We got what we needed with the help of the support group, the Red Cross, and others who brought stuff from their own homes and at their own expense. Even my Swedish teacher, Margaret, helped.
Farid has no shortage of customers. Photo: Private
What is the work like?
When I first started taking the refugees’ requests for repairing, there were some awkward situations, especially when communicating with newcomers from different nationalities. Sometimes I misunderstood them, for example, shortening the pants rather than tightening them.
Nevertheless, I repaired everything until it satisfied peoples’ needs. Now, 80 percent of my communication with non-Syrians is gesturing, to avoid misunderstandings, which has helped a lot.
I have been working on my own, but last month another young Syrian refugee joined me. I repair an average of five pieces a day – which amounts to more than 2,500 pieces of clothing since I started.
This room is quite big; I like it. I work every day from 8am until 1-2pm.
After finishing my work, I bring my laptop with me to listen to Swedish lessons. However, even then, a few refugees come to me asking for mending – I don’t let anyone down. If it’s easy I repair and help them quickly, if it needs a lot of work I ask them to wait until the next day.
What does your work involve?
I am not creating clothes; I am mending and repairing. I shorten, tighten and repair clothes as needed. Sometimes I create table and pillow covers out of outdated curtains. I have four shelves filled with fabrics, all collected from volunteers.
A quilt sewn by Farid. Photo: Private
Why are you working voluntarily?
I was taught to work and help others and that’s what I’m doing – then I feel alive from within.
Everyone [at the centre] came to Sweden for a reason, and Sweden welcomed us all. I think that through my work, I am thanking Sweden. As a refugee, when you do something, you feel like you’re giving back.
Not all refugees might think like that, there are some lazy people who decide not to do anything until they get the decisions of their asylum cases. I think that’s wrong, because life never stops and we need to keep working - or at least do something.
My time right now is dedicated to helping people, as payback for those who helped us – because they deserve it.