New Venture Helps Female Afghan Refugees in NJ Earn a Living

Two Jersey women set up the Bibi Collective in Jersey City for seven refugees, who can now embroider and sell handcrafted bags, clothing and pillows.

An Afghan refugee embroiders a colorful handbag

With the proceeds from sales of embroidered bags, shirts and pillows, Afghan refugees can help support their families. Photo courtesy of Veronica Yankowski

In August 2021, Montclair resident Leila Faridi was horrified to see Afghan families fleeing their country in the wake of the American military withdrawal. “The scenes at the airport—it was incredibly heartbreaking,” Faridi recalls. “I felt like those little kids were my own kids.”

Determined to help somehow, Faridi contacted a refugee-assistance organization in Jersey City, Welcome Home, which introduced her to Afghan families newly arrived in New Jersey.

Faridi instantly bonded with a woman named Sofia (who asked that her last name not be used), who had spent four months at refugee camps with her husband and four children.

Faridi took the children on outings and helped Sofia navigate the practical challenges of starting a new life in the United States. In gratitude, Sofia made her a beautiful handbag.

“She embroidered the entire front of the bag in this amazing traditional design, with mirrors and everything,” Faridi marveled. “It was so beautiful; it started the whole idea of the Bibi Collective.”

Faridi, together with her friend Stephanie Sheerin, also of Montclair, brainstormed how Sofia and other Afghan refugees could earn income through their unique skills. An advocate of fair-trade practices, Sheerin found ethically sourced fabrics for the women to work with and bought them in bulk. Then the pair contacted a local law firm, Spiro, Harrison and Nelson, to help the women set up their business. The attorneys not only provided pro bono counsel, but they set up individual LLCs for each of the seven textile artists, so they could manage their own earnings.

Thus, the Bibi Collective was born. Bibi means “a woman, full of life” in Afghan culture—the perfect name for their new venture.

Then came the matter of finding vendors. The Bibi Collective’s first pop-up event was at Le Souk, a Montclair café owned by a Syrian refugee. This was followed by Kimaya Kama in Maplewood, Mimi and Hill in Westfield, the Montclair Art Museum gift shop, and the General Store in Montclair.

Faridi and Sheerin also set up individual Etsy shops for the women and rented tables at craft fairs throughout the northern New Jersey area.

For Faridi, meeting Sofia and the other Afghan women has been immeasurably rewarding. “I love going to their houses and cuddling all the babies,” she says.

Setting up the Bibi Collective has also been a deeply meaningful experience, in a different way, for everyone involved.

“For these women, who aren’t even literate in their own language, being in business for themselves is an amazing opportunity,” Faridi says.

“They have some financial independence and can still take care of their children while learning English. This experience has been really powerful for them.”

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