refugees help amsterdam become circular city
In Amsterdam, a repair shop run by refugees is helping major brands give worn-out clothing a fresh look. The founders are currently establishing a new fixing factory in the UK.
About as Dutch as it gets is Westerpark. This expansive urban park in the heart of Amsterdam is built on the grounds of a former gasworks and is home to hip eateries, outdoor picnic areas, rain-fed waterways, and a maze of flower-filled community gardens.
A glimpse of a new-look Netherlands is taking shape just off the park’s south-western edge, in an unremarkable industrial complex close to the city’s ring road. Arab pop music, the mechanical hum of sewing machines, and conversations in rudimentary Dutch can be heard as it works.
Welcome to the United Repair Centre, the newest project in Amsterdam’s quest to create one of the first fully circular cities in the world. The center, which opened in September with assistance from the city government and the outdoor apparel company Patagonia, employs about 20 full-time staff members to fix ripped or damaged clothing that would otherwise be thrown in the trash.
The center is operated as a for-profit social enterprise, and its objectives are both social and circular. Everyone listed on the company’s books is a refugee or economic migrant, or as the initiative’s co-founder and Brazilian-born Thami Schweichler prefer to say, a “newcomer.”
Ramzi, a 50-year-old Palestinian who fled to Amsterdam from his adopted country of Syria after conditions there became intolerable, is one such recent arrival. He worked as a tailor in Damascus before the nation descended into violence, specializing in clothing for girls.
He now accepts anything that enters the room. According to him, he appreciates the variety because “with every piece, there’s always something new to repair, which helps keep the work interesting.”
The job helps put food on the table and keep a roof over the heads of the family of five. The same can be said for his coworkers, who are primarily from Syria but also include people who are Chinese, Russians, Ukrainians, and Iranians among other nationalities.
Some people are already skilled in tailoring, but for those who are not, on-the-job training is offered. The center will begin offering a certified training program in October in collaboration with a nearby technical college. Following graduation, each of the initial 10 participants will be given a job with the social enterprise.
The center affects more than just pay. Schweichler and his colleagues help immigrants with practical issues like housing, language classes, and legal advice.
While being small can be lovely, achieving scale is necessary for the center to have its full impact. Schweichler has no lack of ambition in that regard. The 38-year-old industrial design graduate plans to increase employment to 150 people within five years and perform 300,000 repairs annually (up from 25,000 at present).
The Netherlands’ immigration politics are a concerning storm brewing. The coalition government in power earlier this month disintegrated over proposals to tighten immigration regulations. This year, 70,000 asylum applications are anticipated, up from 47,000 in 2016.
However, this startup that welcomes newcomers has a number of strong suits up its sleeve. Strangely, the first has a proven track record. Makers Unite, a sister project that Schweichler and other co-founders also co-founded, shares the center’s workspace. It was founded in 2016 and uses newcomers to recycle used clothing into brand-new goods.
The production for Makers Unite is managed by Fadi, a 39-year-old Syrian. He owned his own textile business and had 40 employees before being forced to leave Aleppo, his hometown. For the clothing retailer C&A, his small team of tailors is currently finishing up a new line of upcycled jeans and denim jackets.
“The big dream of everyone who comes [to the Netherlands] as a migrant is to find a job directly,” he asserts. But it’s challenging because you have to spend a year in a camp and are unable to work during that time.
The support of six companies, including Decathlon, Lululemon, Scotch & Soda, and Patagonia, is the center’s second advantage. Each brand has agreed to regularly send the center a supply of damaged items that customers return for repair, with the brands themselves footing the bill.
The Dutch social enterprise has been able to move forward with plans for a second workshop thanks to the guaranteed flow of work, but this time it will take place in the UK where the contentious Illegal Immigration Bill was approved on Monday. Anyone who enters the UK without authorization may be arrested and deported under this law.
According to Schweichler, a new United Repair facility will open in Leeds later this year and another could possibly follow in London at a later time, despite the UK’s hardening stance towards refugees.
Leeds’ long history of textile manufacturing and its high levels of deprivation both played a role in the decision to start there. Schweichler wants to include long-term unemployed individuals as well as young unemployed individuals at the Leeds site in addition to newcomers.
“Because of Brexit, shipping repairs to and from the UK is now challenging. Everything gets held up in customs, says the social entrepreneur who is both Dutch and Brazilian. So, why not set up there, we reasoned? There is a demand for repairs, there is a demonstrable social need, and there is a tested method by which we can connect the two.”
The United Repair Centre in Amsterdam shows how refugees and economic migrants can help major brands refresh worn clothing. The center has created jobs for newcomers and helped them with housing, language classes, and legal advice by hiring skilled tailors from diverse backgrounds. They also want to expand by opening a fixing factory in Leeds. Despite recent EU and UK refugee restrictions, this initiative may continue. However, some organizations are working to make cities more inclusive and diverse.