One of the things that makes MADE51 special is our network of social enterprise partners based in refugee-hosting countries. These businesses work directly with refugee artisans to create unique MADE51 products, market them to buyers, manage production and fulfil orders. Through these businesses, refugees earn fair wages, enhance their artisan skills, and - in many cases - get the chance to connect with the local community. Our 'Founder Series' showcases the story behind these businesses, and the people that bring them to life.
Bebemoss is a Fair Trade business with a mission to help moms create a better life for their children. Bebemoss has headquarters in Istanbul, Turkey, and works with local Turkish artisans, as well as Syrian, Afghan, and Iranian refugees. These women, all of whom are moms, create soft toys using sustainable eco-conscious practices and crochet techniques.
Izabela Ersahin, the founder of Bebemoss, considers herself an 'accidental social entrepreneur'. We're thrilled she shared her story with us.
Tell us a little bit about your social enterprise – where are you based and what products are you making?
Bebemoss began as my dream to support women in need.
Currently we employ over 120 women, welcoming refugees from Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan, as well as immigrants and impoverished women in the Istanbul metro area. We offer these women dignified, fair-trade employment with the freedom to manage work-life balance.
As a WFTO guaranteed member, Bebemoss is fully committed to the 10 Principles of Fair Trade and is also a verified social enterprise by the Social Enterprise World Forum. The Fair Trade Certified(TM) brand is ethically and sustainably handmade in Istanbul by mothers and refugees.
The handmade, soft and huggable toys from Bebemoss evoke nursery rhymes and nature themes, providing kids with a sense of security and comfort through their huggable playmates. Our materials are premium organic cotton with detailed superior handmade craftsmanship.
Most of the time, our toys are sold in small stores and online in the USA. We also manufacture other crochet and knit products for a few international brands. We can make soft furnishings, décor and accessories and even textiles.
What inspired you to start this business?
I wish I was one of those amazing, driven people who planned to build impact but I am what I like to call an accidental social entrepreneur. I have to admit that this was not really my path and that things somehow happened to me along the journey.
I started crafting and designing toys and baby products during my second pregnancy, when complications kept me bedridden for many months. It was my husband who suggested I sell the products I made online, and so I did - I opened an Etsy store and shortly after a Shopify website. When my products got traction from buyers, I needed help making them, so I put in an online ad.
I got an astonishing response, with hundreds of women contacting me to join the adventure. This made me realise there was an issue here in Turkey: many mothers are excluded from the traditional job market and need a more flexible work model. I saw that I could help address this by creating opportunities for women to do craft work. This is also when I met my now partner, Zeynep Gümüş, and the core of our team.
Regarding working with refugee mothers, again, it just happened to us. When the war in Syria created a big influx of refugees into Turkey it just seemed very natural to work with those mothers as well. Not only did they face even more challenges than the local mothers we were already employing, but they were living in the same neighbourhoods too.
Izabela at work in the Bebemoss workshop with several artisans & team members. Photo: Beril Toper
How many artisans do you work with and where are they from? Can you tell us a little more about the refugee artisans and what their life outside of work is like?
The number of artisan women we work with fluctuates; currently we employ about 120 women but this number can range anywhere from 60 to 200. At the moment our goal is to employ 500 artisan women on a regular basis by 2025.
We presently work with about 30 women who are refugees. Despite the fact that refugees have the right to work in Turkey their spouses and family members usually work in the informal economy, lacking stability and fair pay. Women most of the time are confined at home and tasked with primary caregiving roles.
What inspired you to start working with refugees?
I am aware of what it is to move to a foreign country to learn a new language and adapt to a new way of life. Even if my personal experience is not in any way comparable to the hardship they went through, I can relate. I am a mother of 3 and I know what it is to work to provide a better future for your kiddos. This is what motivates and inspires me to work with women from displaced communities.
What craft techniques do the refugee artisans you work with artisans specialize in and where did they learn these skills?
We primarily work using crochet and knitting techniques; typically, we teach them these abilities, but many of our artisans are already very proficient in these techniques as they were a part of their culture. These days, taking into account the culture and history of the artisans who are a part of our incredibly diverse team, we also explore ways to discover and integrate more traditional skills and techniques into our products.
Bebemoss artisan working on crochet sheep that is part of Bebemoss' MADE51 collection. Photo: Beril Toper
What makes the craft techniques special?
I believe it is our duty to preserve the techniques of the more ancient crafts. Also, those skills are portable so our artisans can take them wherever they go. Each product made using those techniques tells an incredible story, sometimes personal but also is a token of a particular culture or history.
What have you learned about the refugee crisis from working with these artisans?
I learned to recognize my privilege, I learned humility, and respect. I learned that no refugee flies out of their home by choice. I learned the human cost of war violence, and persecution. These women have taught me compassion, kindness, and above all perseverance and resilience.
What has been the most challenging part about working with refugees, and what has been the most rewarding?
The language barrier is still our most challenging part, then the cultural issues around female employment and the independence it might offer. I guess the most rewarding part is the fact that in our organization we are all mothers driven by the fact that we want to build a better future for our kiddos. By doing the work we are doing we were able to improve the lives of almost 500 children because every one of the artisan mothers we work with would tell you she spends her earnings on their kids or grandkids.