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Fashion production co-op run by refugee, immigrant women to open in Chicago

Members of Blue Tin Production.

Mercy (from left), Hoda Katebi and others work on a design at Blue Tin Production, a fashion production co-op run by refugee and immigrant women. | Provided by Blue Tin Production

Even though she has been sewing her whole life, Mercy never imagined she would help launch a fashion production company.

In 2003, she immigrated to Chicago from Nigeria with her four children to join her husband, who had moved ahead of the family for a job. But once she arrived, her husband grew controlling and did not allow her to work.

“Sometimes you come to a place that you didn’t know, you don’t know anybody, and it’s kind of difficult,” she said. “Some men, they kind of put you in a box.”

She suffered for years in the marriage, but sought help from Apna Ghar — a resource for immigrant women in abusive relationships — and left her husband in 2017. She was tired of watching her children cry.

Now, Mercy — who asked that we not use her last name — is one of three founding members of Blue Tin Production, a fashion production co-op run by immigrant and refugee women. To get off the ground, Blue Tin Production started a crowdfunding campaign last week with the goal of raising $25,000 for sewing machines and materials. As of Friday, the co-op had raised over $17,000 from nearly 600 donors.

The initial vision for the co-op came from Hoda Katebi, who has been carving out chunks of her day in her planner for the past three years to bring Blue Tin Production to life.

The daughter of Iranian immigrants, Katebi knows all too well the struggles immigrant women face when they move to the United States. As a girl, she watched her mother collect rejection letters from potential employers in a box.

“She wears a hijab and we lived in Oklahoma at the time,” she recalled. “Job after job she would get accepted on the phone and she would walk in and they would say ‘never mind.'”

That experience, coupled with the research she’s done about the exploitation of garment workers while running her fashion blog, Joojoo Azad, is what sparked the idea for a co-op where immigrant and refugee women would work with the skill many have: sewing.

Mercy works on a design at Blue Tin Production, a fashion production co-op run by refugee and immigrant women. | Provided by Blue Tin Production

At the time, Katebi was receiving requests for partnerships from fashion brands (her Instagram page boasts nearly 60,000 followers) but would turn them down when they couldn’t tell her where their clothes are produced.

“I thought if I could launch my own clothing line, having no background in fashion … and make it completely ethical and successful, I could hold brands accountable so much more easily,” she said.

What she found was that it wasn’t so simple. Touring factories and production houses, she couldn’t find a place that met her requirements.

“I don’t have high standards, I just don’t want garment workers to be exploited,” the 24-year-old said.

When she realized she wouldn’t be able to find the right place to produce her designs, she set out to create it herself. In a few months, Blue Tin Production — named for the blue butter cookie tin many Middle Eastern women use to store their sewing kits — will open.

Based out of American Islamic College in Buena Park, the co-op is being developed by Mercy and two Syrian refugees, with Katebi as an honorary member.

By providing accessible, well-paying jobs for immigrant and refugee women, the co-op creates an alternative to the sweatshops that routinely exploit garment workers in south and southeast Asia, Katebi said.

A national department store has already put in a request to work with the co-op.

Blue Tin Production will also serve as an educational resource offering free sewing classes, and a place open to school trips where students can see what goes into creating clothing and how much money it costs.

For Mercy, the chance to teach other women the skill that has been so therapeutic for her has been the most exciting part of joining the co-op.

“I always wanted to be a part of something big,” she said. “I would tell my case worker that I want to help other women as well, other women that are going through what I’m going through. When I heard that there were going to be these sewing classes for immigrant women, I thought this is it.”

Her children — now 25, 23, 20 and 16 — were elated when they heard she was one of the three women out of over 100 chosen to start the cooperative.

“They were overwhelmed with joy, they said ‘Ma, we have to go celebrate.’ And we went to a buffet,” she said with a laugh.