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Bags of hope: migrant and refugee women in Brighton make scrub bags for local hospital

As the pandemic took hold and the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) in the UK became apparent, members of the Network of International Women of Brighton and Hove wanted to do something to help the NHS.

Various ideas were explored but at the end of April the women decided that the most practical and achievable idea was to produce scrub bags filled with homemade masks to donate to the hospital. Social media was used to call out for contributions, naming the new project Bags of Hope.

A small Manchester based company, Decordia Events, offered to donate to the Network some of the fabric they had purchased for summer festivals and events, now cancelled due to the virus. Instead of returning the materials, they wanted to turn the situation into something positive. 24 hours later, the package of bright and fun fabrics arrived in Brighton.

Over the next twelve days, eighteen women from seven different countries including refugees created their Bags of Hope from their homes. Fabric was pre-cut and distributed to the women, some of whom had already started their bags using other materials they found. A few had access to sewing machines whilst others carefully sewed every stitch by hand.

Messages were added to lots of the bags by the women, especially those from countries facing dreadful conflict, expressing their personal appreciation of the NHS, their respect for the bravery of health workers and the care they had witnessed the NHS provide to everyone.

By early May, 94 bags had been completed. By chance, when one of the images was shared in a local WhatsApp group chat, it was spotted by Sarah Doffman, a Respiratory Consultant at the hospital. She brought the bags in for her team at the Royal Sussex County Hospital the following day.

Sarah said: ‘I’m so grateful to the network for all their beautiful handiwork and their time and thoughtfulness in making these bags. I’ve distributed them to ward staff across the hospital…Being able to put our scrubs and uniforms into a bag and straight into the wash makes all the difference in feeling more safe going home to our loved ones.’

Councillor Nancy Platts, leader of the Brighton & Hove City Council, said ‘This story is a real inspiration…Our NHS workers need our support now more than ever, and these bags are a wonderful and innovative way to express that. On behalf of Brighton & Hove City Council, I want to thank each and every member of the Network of International Women for their efforts.’

Here’s what some of the women involved had to say about the project:

‘I want to thank the British people as they have accepted me and other refugees from Syria. I also want to thank the Council of Brighton and Hove and all the women in the Network for welcoming me to this city. I want to thank our NHS for what it is doing for so many people in this pandemic.’ (Fatena – Syria)

‘Covid-19 forced us all to stay at home, get busy in disinfecting and cleaning, it affected us all and put us down but at the same time we are full of hope that those infected be cured and get well. We also hope that those who work in the NHS stay safe and we greatly appreciate their efforts. We were happy to contribute by working on the Bags of Hope, even if it is a small contribution it is still contain a big thank you to them. (Miassar – Syria)

‘Making the Bags of Hope was the one thing I chose rather than had to do during lockdown and I was very happy while I was working on them. I felt I am helping someone who is tired and exhausted during this time.’ (Ohood –Syria)

‘It was a chance for me to give something back to NHS staff who leave their children and loved ones and put themselves in danger in order to save lives. I appreciate that I could give and I am ready to do more. The whole process gave me happiness. Also, I am a Muslim and it is greatly rewarding for us to do good deed like this in Ramadan. We had time to do the bags even for someone who worked by hand like me.’ (Aicha- Morocco)

‘I enjoyed the sewing because I wanted to help the NHS and the network. I was full of admiration for all those involved and the project made me feel happy and hopeful. All the bags were made with love and those involved were able to show this in different ways. Everything was perfect! And such a brilliant idea!’ (Rabab – Yemen)

I liked this project and had a lovely feeling that we are close to the NHS and join them in their hard work. (Laila K. -Yemen)

The Network of International Women for Brighton & Hove provides a platform for women from diverse cultures and backgrounds to meet, share their experience and knowledge and support one another. Find out more about the group here.