Nadia Wali threads white stitches through a dark blue cloth, creating an intricate Afghan design. Wali is a mother-of-two and an Afghan refugee living in Union City, New Jersey. She usually makes bags and clothing to sell through her store on Etsy, but this time, she is sewing a Christmas stocking for a limited-edition collaboration with singer-songwriter John Legend, which launched at her shop this fall.
Wali, 22, is one of seven Afghan women who formed the sewing group Bibi Collective a year after being part of the air evacuation of 122,000 Afghans as part of the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021. Their husbands were among the Afghan men employed by the U.S. military in security and other roles, she said. They were all given visas to work in the U.S., the Office for Refugee Resettlement said. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 9,871 Afghans now live in New York and 3,100 in New Jersey.
Legend, the multiplatinum-selling singer-songwriter and winner of 12 Grammy Awards, chose to promote the work of female, Black and underrepresented artisans as part of the Creator Collab, a partnership between celebrities and sellers organized by Etsy, an e-commerce platform that focuses on handmade goods. Wali is one of a dozen artisans who had set up shops on Etsy that Legend selected for the collaboration.
“I did not know who John Legend was, but I hope he will help us to sell more,” Wali said, speaking in Pashto. He suggested Wali make a minimum of seven stockings during the three-month collaboration as a starting point, and more if they sell out.
“It’s important for me to fill my home with high quality pieces made by people who approach their craft with intention,” Legend said in a statement. “Getting to collaborate with these talented artists was such a special experience, because the finished products tell a story about the people who made them.”
Each piece takes about 10 hours to create and the stockings are advertised as requiring a one-to-four-week production period. That gives Wali time to sew every order placed. The stockings are priced at $165. Etsy takes a 6.5% fee and Wali gets the rest. On the day of the launch, Legend shared a reel on his Instagram profile and Etsy promoted the collaboration through email and social media. Four stockings sold within the first two days.
Kenna Mateos, director of programs at Welcome Home, a non-profit group that has resettled about 300 Afghans in New Jersey, said the women have been excluded from the job market because they lack digital and financial literacy, education and experience. But each participant in the Bibi Collective, none of whom speak English, has opened a store on Etsy. The website started The Uplift Makers Program in June 2022, which gives the creators resources and business skills education to set up their Etsy shops and sell their handcrafted items.
The refugees formed the Bibi Collective with help from Leila Faridi, who met the women while volunteering with Welcome Home to assist Afghans resettling in New Jersey. The organization paired Faridi with a family to help them find doctors and other services. That is when Wali’s sister-in-law, Sofia Alizai, showed Faridi photographs of clothes she made in Afghanistan.
Faridi noticed other refugees selling products on Etsy and acquired a sewing machine, fabric and thread and helped Alizai, Wali and some of the other women who sewed to create their own shops.
“John Legend’s platform will uplift their voices and hopefully propel them towards financial independence,” Faridi said.