This year, UNHCR marks 10 years of global partnership with UNIQLO.
To celebrate the milestone and to help spread the word about the partnership, UNIQLO commissioned a special bracelet made by MADE51 artisans. The blue, red and white beaded bracelet represents the brand colors of the UNHCR and UNIQLO. Refugee artisans in East Africa beaded over 13,000 UNHCRxUNIQLO bracelets, which were used by UNIQLO to reward customers in 16 countries - customers who took action in support of refugees, either by purchasing clothing for refugees, donating gently-used clothing or making a donation in support of UNHCR.
The UNHCRxUNIQLO bracelet design was chosen for the impact it would make. In March, food rations for refugees in East Africa region were cut due to funding shortfalls, making income-earning opportunities more important than ever. Designing a bracelet that could be made by refugee women in the most affected countries - Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, and those internally displaced in South Sudan - was a goal. The UNHCRxUNIQLO bracelet picks up on the strong beading tradition of South Sudanese women. This meant that the 600 women involved in production had access to income to meet basic needs, such as food and education expenses for their children, at a time that their food rations were cut.
Beaded bracelets created in partnership with UNIQLO. © UNHCR/S. Otieno Odhiambo
The situation that caused their forced displacement is complex. Since 2013, brutal conflict in South Sudan has claimed thousands of lives and driven nearly 4 million people from their homes. While many remain displaced inside the country, 2.2 million have fled to neighboring countries in a desperate bid to reach safety.
Rose, an artisan that worked on the UNHCRxUNIQLO bands, is one of these South Sudanese women who sought refuge in Kenya in 2017. “We were running away from war and crime,” Rose explained. “When we arrived here in Kenya, we were able to relax. I have not heard of fights or even the sound of guns again...we are safe.”
Rose Ihisa, a South Sudanese refugee, making the UNHCRxUNIQLO band in Kalobeyei Settlement, Kenya. © UNHCR/Loduye Ghaisen
Since 2018, Rose has been able to earn income through beading, which has in turn allowed her to care for her four children and put them through school. “Since I started this job, I have been able to support my children. The ones who don’t have sandals, I buy them for them with the money I make...as well as pens and books.”
Susan, another South Sudanese refugee artisan in Kenya, has also been able to use her craft skills to earn income that has been essential for supporting her 8 children. “I’ve seen that (beading) has supported me and my family. I can change their diet, I am able to buy soap for washing their clothes, I am also able to buy books and school materials for my children,” she explains.
Susan Ibiro, a South Sudanese refugee, works on beading the UNHCRxUNIQLO bracelet in Kalobeyei Settlement, Kenya. (c) UNHCR / Loduye Ghaisen
For refugees like Rose and Susan, artisan work can also offer something more than income - it can be a chance to engage socially and build support networks. Rose painted a vibrant picture, “The importance of working together as a group is we come from diverse communities. Like I am from Lotuko community, and there are some from Turkana community. We all work in the same place. When you don’t know something, you are easily assisted and that is the goodness of the group. Now we know each other so well and we never fight or quarrel.”
Lucy Akai, Turkana host community woman, poses for a photo with her child at the MADE51 centre in Kalobeyei. She proudly displays her first UNIQLO design bracelet. © UNHCR/S. Otieno Odhiambo
Though the majority of MADE51 artisans are refugees, in some locations refugee groups work with host community artisans, as Rose described. This helps create social cohesion and uplifts host communities, which are often also struggling with their own socio-economic challenges. Through beading, common bonds are forged.
For the artisans that crafted these bracelets, beading is tied to their heritage. Beadwork has a long history in Eastern Africa and can still carry great cultural significance. Colours and patterns can indicate age, ethic group or marital status. Often, women learn beading from their mothers and grandmothers and it becomes an asset that they can carry forward with them to rely on, celebrate, and pass on to their children.
Regina Nanok, from the Turkana host community, poses for a photo with bracelets she made for UNIQLO. © UNHCR/S. Otieno Odhiambo
Regina, a local Turkana woman, described learning from her grandmother, saying “I used to watch my grandmother as she made them. When she'd step out, I tried making them and when she got back, she would correct my work. She corrected me until I learned it.” It seems her grandmother taught her well.
“I used beads to decorate many things. I use them to decorate wine glasses. I use them to create women's accessories. I use them to create straps for cameras. If there is a journalist with the camera, they can bring it and I can create the strap. Even your bicycle. If you need me to embellish it, I can do that for you.”
This is what makes each of these bracelets so special. Behind each one is a human trying to build a brighter future using their talent and heritage. It’s a fitting way to commemorate a decade of partnership devoted to supporting refugees. We look forward to continuing to work with UNIQLO to promote refugee livelihoods around the world.