By Aisha Hassan on March 17th, 2021
Women on a mission
The core of Fugeelah is its social impact mission. Deborah Henry, an activist and former Miss Malaysia, started the jewelry brand in 2017 in order to support the Fugee School, a non-profit that provides free education to refugees, which she also founded in 2009. “The thing about a social enterprise is you talk about people before profit,” Deborah says.
Behind Fugeelah’s bright and joyful pieces, such as the Illi Necklace or Small Yara Earrings, is a dedication to making a difference in people’s lives. “What’s most important is constantly asking how to be more fair along the whole production chain,” Deborah says. This includes consulting with qualified jewelry designers to explore ethical manufacturing, or involving students and alumni from the Fugee School in creating the jewelry pieces and compensating them for it. And amidst all these considerations is the importance of finding customers, who are vital to supporting Fugeelah’s mission.
“Ultimately you’re creating that advocacy but you also need to be a financially sustainable business,” Deborah says. “Part of your sales is your social impact.”
This girl can
While many people are first drawn to Fugeelah because of the eye-catching designs, connections are truly built when customers start talking to the female refugees — endearingly called “Fugeelah girls” — who are involved in the brand. “When someone meets these girls from Somalia or Syria at a bazaar, it’s their story that starts building bridges between cultures,” Deborah says.
Encouraging customer interaction is just one of many ways that Fugeelah facilitates skills training for the Fugeelah girls. “They learn on the job with opportunities to run bazaars and develop marketing skills, as well as doing inventory management, visual merchandising, and processing payments,” Deborah says. The girls are also taught how to assemble and hand-make jewelry, and can ask to be involved in different parts of Fugeelah operations.
For Deborah, watching the Fugeelah girls apply their skills is immensely fulfilling. “I’ve known some of them since they were very young, and seeing them grow and in action...they’ll now take this skillset and mindset wherever they go to be more successful in life,” she says.
The right to dream
Real-world skills training, and the long-term professional empowerment it enables, which goes beyond simply charity, is an essential part of what the Fugee School and Fugeelah stands for. And so when Deborah is asked what makes running Fugeelah so rewarding, the answer is simple.
“For me, it’s always been clear,” she says. “Since that first day in 2008 when I met this refugee family in their home in Gombak [Malaysia], it was clear that day and it’s clear today, that every child has a right to a quality education that goes beyond Maths and Science and English...It’s about giving knowledge and teaching you how to teach yourself, to have ambitions to build a meaningful and dignified life.”
Education inside and outside the classroom is what breaks poverty cycles not just for one person, “but for generations to come,” Deborah says. “There’s nothing quite like seeing a child say hang on, I have value, I’m worthy to have expectations and dream about a future I want for myself, and there’s people around me that will help me get to that goal,” she continues. “That’s what the brand has done since day one and we continue to do so today.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aisha Hassan is a writer, journalist, and co-founder of Dia. Previously, Aisha worked for Quartz in New York and Harper’s Bazaar in Malaysia. Her fiction has been published in international literary magazines. She has a bachelor’s degree in English Language & Literature from the University of Oxford, and a master’s degree from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.