Coronavirus: meet the New York refugees making masks and bringing in cash for their families

Experts and newbies are working together to bolster supplies of face masks essential to reduce infection risk

Healthcare workers wear masks made by Masks for NY volunteers. Courtesy Queens Center for Progress
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Syrian and Afghan refugees in the US are giving back to their new home by making protective face masks for New York health workers to use during the coronavirus pandemic.

Holly Rosen Fink and her organisation Neighbours for Refugees, which supports refugees and Special Immigrant Visa holders – people who have worked for or assisted US forces in conflict zones – were encouraged to start the process of making masks by a community member who had excess fabric.

“When the pandemic started, a woman in our community came to us and said, 'look, I've got all this fabric, maybe some of your refugees who sew can make masks'.”

But as well the group gaining a sense of accomplishment from contributing to those in need of personal protection equipment, Ms Rosen Fink wanted the task to reward them financially.

“Although they were all very eager to do it for nothing because they knew it was so urgent, we wanted to pay them,” she said.

So leaders at Neighbours for Refugees got out into their community and raised enough money to initially bring in five women, who were later joined by another woman and one man.

“We created a financial model where we would pay them a certain amount of money per mask and a training fee to come on board the programme,” Ms Rosen Fink added.

Amina Ahmad came to the US from Syria and now runs her own alterations business. Courtesy neighbours for refugees

The masks the team are making are sorely needed. New York has been the hardest-hit state in a country with about a third of the more than 48,000 deaths from the virus and an overloaded healthcare system.

On April 11, the New York State Nurses Association wrote to the state health commissioner claiming hospital staff were being exposed to “dangerous working conditions” due to “critical shortages” of personal protective equipment, including masks.

Working with grassroots group Masks for NY, the group has so far produced 3,109 masks out of a collective 10,000 by the wider organisation. There are two designs, the basic "better than nothing" Deaconness pattern and the Leah Day pattern with filter pocket and nose clip.

They are collected and distributed in a relay style, with over 250 volunteers buying materials, sewing, collecting and delivering masks to hospitals, care homes and even rehabilitation clinics.

That care homes are on the list is particularly important given New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s assertion on Wednesday that “it’s not [the state's] job” to provide personal protective equipment to care homes.

Amina Ahmad, 48, who arrived in the US in 2017 from Syria via a five-year stay in Malaysia, says she would have been happy to make the masks for free, but “was happy when I found out I would get paid”.

"I knew these masks could save lives and I wanted to help," she told The National.

Just because something has a medical use, doesn't mean it has to be boring. The masks are made in a range of brightly coloured materials. Ms Ahmed’s prodigious skill means she can create 75 masks per day, taking approximately seven minutes to complete the more complex Leah Day pattern.

She does this alongside her burgeoning business, Amina’s Alterations, and taking care of her three children.

“It makes me happy to know that I may be helping [health workers] survive this terrible virus,” she said.

“I like to think that the bright colors I'm choosing to make them also cheers them up.”

Other contributors to the scheme include a newly-arrived man who is learning to sew to take part and two sisters, one of whom only arrived in February this year. All three come from families who worked with the Americans and were subjected to harassment in their native Afghanistan, says Ms Rosen Fink, and are following patterns laid out on the Masks for NY website.

For some of the refugees, fighting the virus is a team effort. One of the seamstresses supplying masks is married to a man working on the front lines at White Plains hospital in the Covid-19 response team.

“He’s a member of the virus response team and that makes it even so much more interesting because his wife is home making hundreds and hundreds of protective masks for our effort to get these masks to as many hospitals and medical centres as possible,” said Ms Rosen Fink.