Empowering women through art: Refugee Perspectives

As told to M. Nauman Qureshi

Against all odds, Clarisse transformed her situation into a story of success and largesse. All it took was two years for her to become a fashion designer and Founder of an arts and crafts collective called Art Women. She’s now revered for her bright and bold clothing as well as her clean supply chains that support local businesses in Congo. Her clothing has been featured on runways in collaboration with HarmonyHK, and she’s only getting started. Despite the many obstacles refugees face in Hong Kong, that hasn’t stopped Clarisse from pursuing her dreams and helping people back home. CW: some discussion of survivors of sexual violence.

How long have you been in Hong Kong? 

I’ve been in Hong Kong for a long time, nine years. 

What can you tell us about the dish you cooked, Pondu? 

I cooked Pondu because Pondu is my dish from my mother country [Democratic Republic of Congo]. I grew up with Pondu, that’s why I prepare Pondu every time. If I eat Pondu, I’m fine, I’m happy. 

Pondu, pili pili spice, chicken stew, fufu. Photo: Denis Tsoi

In addition to cooking, you are involved in other creative initiatives such as sewing and arts and crafts. Is this something you did in your home country? 

No, back in my country I never did sewing and I didn’t even start to learn to sew. I started sewing in Hong Kong. Back in my country, I was a nurse.

It’s amazing because you started learning how to sew in late 2017?

Yes.

And it’s only the middle of 2020, but you already have clothes on a fashion show and on a runway. How does that make you feel to be able to show your work like that?

I feel proud of myself because I have done something and the things coming from Art Women, like, everyone is happy about it. I think other people who can follow me and my example may be able to do what I’m doing, but you have to be brave.

An Art Women dress. Photo: Bradley Aaron

What inspired you to start Art Women?

Art Women was for myself, it was part of counselling, to calm myself down mainly from headaches and because I had nothing to do in Hong Kong. We can’t work in Hong Kong, they don’t allow us to work and I started thinking about what could I do. I didn’t start by sewing, I first started crocheting. After crochet, I learnt to sew.

What were the challenges you faced when you were starting up Art Women?

A lot of challenges because for Art Women we needed to find a place to produce our work because we are making a lot of stuff. We didn’t have a place to sell our handicrafts and art. We also need people to come and support us. It is hard to find people to support us because too many people use refugees as a business so I have had to find some other people to help. Then through a friend, I found Tegan and she started helping me. I asked my friend Hyacintha what we could do next and she said she would connect me to one of her friends and she connected me to Tegan. That was in 2017.

The first thing I said to Tegan was that I don’t want people to come to use me or see me as someone to make business from, I want people to come and help me – and I don’t want people to come to give me a headache. Tegan said she just wanted to help me. I said okay, if you will help, then we will continue with what we are doing but if you become like other people who have used me in the past, I will stop. Because in the past people have come and said that they are coming to help but they are not. They are not.  And so I said, okay, what we can do? Let’s go and let’s see. I thought let’s see if she can help, because maybe she will not help and will become like other people.

And when we started she was so helpful. That’s why we continue today. And people just want to copy what we are doing. 

How do other refugees in Hong Kong perceive Art Women?

I have refugees who want to learn and they’re happy to come to Art Women to learn. Sometimes there are people who don’t want to learn, they just come to the group to get information [about what I am doing]. If people come into my group acting two-faced, then I kick them out. If you are coming to learn, then you come to learn. But if you are coming to us and doing just it to bring information to another charity, I will kick you out. We have lots of amazing ladies who want to learn what we are doing and they are learning many different skills.

Art Women event held in 2019, highlighting the current situation in Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: Abbas Alvi

Are there any projects you are pursuing in Congo? And what kind of work do you do with Art Women ASBL?

When I started Art Women here in Hong Kong, I was watching a lot of bad things happening in my home country. We have a lot of women facing trauma and violence back in my country and not all of them can come to us to join our activities in Hong Kong. So what I decided was to open an Art Women charity in Congo [Art Women ASBL] and start helping women. The project helps women who have survived sexual violence and homeless children, children that were abandoned. 

Why do you want to help people so much? Why do you feel that way in Hong Kong and also in Congo?

You know, to help people is not about money, it’s from the heart. If you want to help people, but you have a small heart and you do it for the wrong reasons, you don’t have the heart to help. But when you have a big heart, when you help people you feel happy. I see people like me like, they don’t have anything, no one to help them either. But if I have one dollar, and even if I have that one dollar, if I keep it for myself and someone else is crying, even God will not be happy.

You see an example like this Coronavirus epidemic, there are lots of people who have died, they had money but money didn’t save them. People are in the hospital, they have money, they give all the money to hospitals to be healthy, but when God decides then God will decide. And when I’m helping [other people], I think God sees I am helping other people, and will help me. God will protect us. The desire to help is coming from my heart and when I see something like this, sometimes I cry, that’s why I want to share whatever I have with people. 

Some of Art Women’s crochet items. Photo: Tegan Smyth

Lots of people would give up. They would find it hard to continue doing things so what is the thing that keeps you going? Why do you still feel motivated?

I cannot give up, because if I give up then I’m not doing anything. For me, I want to continue. Because if you want to do something just keep in mind that you can do it. Think you can do it, and you will do it. If you give yourself doubts, that’s when you get tired, just believe in yourself. I believe in myself and I will do it. And God will help me to do it because I’m doing it not in my power but in God’s power. And we are doing it together. 

What is your dream for Art Women?

My dream for Art Women is that I hope one day it will become big. Like I want it to have a school, hospitals, for it to be a charity that becomes big. The charity is already registered in Congo but I want to build a big house for the homeless. The children and the women can stay there and open an Art Women hospital and an Art Women school. That is my dream.

How far do you think you are from attaining your dream of the Art women hospitals and schools? How long do you think it’ll take you?

I don’t know because I speak to my team, everything needs to have money. If we had the money today, we would want to set up the school in Congo, even start building a hospital. If we had money we could start building it today. But everything depends on how God can help us to find the sponsorship to support us because, with ourselves, we cannot do anything. We need to bring a lot of hands together to bring everything up.

You’ve mentioned religion quite a few times, is that something that’s helped you in your time in Hong Kong? Your religious belief?

I believe in God. And when I’m praying to God I think everything with God is possible. Because without God, we cannot do anything. If it was not God I cannot be in Hong Kong. And with everything I need to put God first. Because when I’m sewing, sometimes I speak to myself. I ask myself what I’m making, how I am making it. Sometimes, when I’m making jackets I sometimes wonder how I am going to start. I believe that is not only myself but it’s the knowledge coming from God helping me with everything I do and when I have a lot of ideas, it’s not just myself or my power but in God’s power that I am able to do it. 

Pondu, fried chicken and rice. Photo: Shama Mashroor

Do you have any thoughts or ideas about how things can change in Hong Kong? The way that people talk about refugees and even the way organisations look at refugees that they are working with?

I don’t know about everyone else but for me, what I can suggest today is that organisations teach refugees how to find the fish, not just giving them fish to eat. Because they are just giving fish to people to eat but tomorrow if you don’t have that fish, what you will do? They need to teach refugees what to do, not just one dollar today, or giving milk or soap. How about tomorrow you don’t have the money to give? What are we doing?

It’s better to teach refugees how to manage their lives themselves. Because even today, they say they are giving refugees a Hong Kong ID today.  If someone hasn’t learnt how to manage themselves, what they will do? Because they are already like; ‘if I stay at home I’ll go to the NGO and then that organization will give me 10 dollars – I don’t need to go to work’.

But if today the authorities say you can go to work, what will you do? If you don’t have anything to do, you can learn. I learnt to sew in Hong Kong, I didn’t know how to sew back in my country. But as I gave my time to learn the skill, now I’m sewing and I’m teaching other people how to do it. 

Do you have a message for refugees in Hong Kong who are finding it difficult to make a life here?

I think my message to them is like you need to believe in yourself. You don’t need to wait for someone to give you something, if someone is giving you some things today, and if that person doesn’t come tomorrow with anything to give you, what you will do? You need to put one step forward while you are waiting for the second step. We have a lot of charities, they are helping. But they will not help you with everything you need.

You need to stand up yourself first. And other people can help you, for me, it’s like the message for refugees is just to believe first in themselves. And then tell yourself  that you can do something for yourself, there is no need to wait for someone to come and help you all the time. 

Art Women jackets, made with African wax fabric. Photo: Bradley Aaron

If you could tell people in Hong Kong something, what would it be?

I would tell Hong Kong people that we didn’t want to be refugees, it’s because of consequence. We weren’t born refugees, we became refugees. Being a refugee is not a crime. Take refugees as human beings like they are, human beings like everyone else. To be a refugee is not a crime. 

Clarisse Akonyi is the physical embodiment of commitment and perseverance. Despite having the odds stacked against her, she has relentlessly pursued her dream and has made her voice heard. Here is a visionary woman who will stop at nothing until her dreams are reality. You can support Art Women by checking out their website and purchasing some of their wonderful products.

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