While living in Germany, in 2009, Elisha Watson witnessed first-hand division and hatred directed towards refugees. “Migration was a politically charged topic, and some politicians were exploiting it for political gains in a way that exacerbated tension and stoked division,” she says. “So I decided I wanted to be part of the solution to that. When I returned to New Zealand in 2015, I wanted to be part of a community that was welcoming towards refugees and migrants – I was looking for a unique way to personally contribute and make a difference,” she adds.
As a Red Cross Refugee Support Volunteer in Wellington, she helped two recently arrived families establish their new lives with everything from registering children in school, to doctor’s visits, and even taking them on their first trip to the supermarket. “I was happy to help in any way that made their life here a bit easier,” she says. She also used her legal skills at the Community Law Centre in their Refugee and Immigration Legal Advice team, offering legal advice around family reunification options and helping former refugees bring relatives to New Zealand.
Watson noticed that many refugee women had sewing experience but lacked the language skills and work experience to secure employment. “Many of these women were traditionally taught as children how to sew and make their own clothes. Others on their way to New Zealand came through Malaysia – a common pathway for people fleeing conflict – which has a big garment industry and they worked there gaining professional sewing skills,” she says.
With a personal love for sewing herself, she began researching a possible business that could have a wide appeal, was possible to begin on a small scale and could utilise their sewing skills. At the time second-hand clothes were in high demand, but she realised that few people buy second-hand underwear and it was actually something people needed.
“I believe there’s enough second-hand clothing in the world. Underwear, on the other hand, is something I could justify making new.” So in 2017, she quit her job as a lawyer and set up Nisa, an underwear and social enterprise.
“When we started, we had three employees from refugee backgrounds working for us part-time and this has grown steadily over time,” says Watson. “Since our inception we’ve offered jobs to 24 women from refugee and migrant backgrounds on a part-time or full-time basis. We’re currently a team of 14 women who make size-inclusive and sustainable underwear, swimwear and activewear.”
Nisa sources its sustainable cotton fabrics from ABMT textiles, a natural fibres mill and environmentally conscious business in Melbourne. Nisa started out as a direct consumer brand selling its products online but in 2019 opened its own shop in Wellington, which is attached to Nisa’s headquarters and workshop. Customers can see the garments being made, try them on and meet the women making their garments.
“We have a really direct relationship with our customers, and a cult following in New Zealand,” says Watson. “And we’re continuously building our community internationally including in Australia where we recently activated a Pop-Up as part of the PayPal Melbourne Fashion Festival.”
Nisa employees receive on-the-job training to bring their sewing and manufacturing skills to a professional level. They simultaneously learn English through workplace conversations and building relationships with the rest of the team.
Watson’s dream is to build a foundation group of 100 former employees who go on to inspire their own communities and start their own businesses. “When people leave us, I want them to go on and pursue new opportunities, inspire their communities and create a great life for themselves,” says Watson.
“One of our former staff members from Syria, Boshra, was not only the first woman, but the first person in her community to find work which was inspiring for her community but also for her family to see a young women provide for her family,” she says. “Another of our team members, Gioryanni has just started a bridging course with the University of Otago, with the dream of becoming a dentist.”
And when Somali-born Nasiim Abdi, who worked for Nisa for three years, moved to Melbourne at the beginning of the year, Watson was able to help her secure employment with The Social Studio in Melbourne – a social enterprise that helps provide work and learning opportunities for Melbourne’s refugee and migrant communities. “Nasiim is now a student co-ordinator for their fashion school and will help run their social sewing classes for women within the community when they launch,” says Watson.
Creating Nisa has been very fulfilling but there was a great responsibility to succeed, as people’s livelihoods were at stake, Watson says.
“The most satisfying thing for me has been using business tools to create opportunities for people who just need a first chance. My aim was to use fashion as a way to enable refugees and migrants to live their lives in dignity and peace.”