Syrian Refugees in Artisans and Craftsmen Center Produce Free Face Masks

Two UN agencies, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), have collaborated in a scheme to provide free masks to workers in Gaziantep’s industrial zone, produced by Syrian refugees.

Rukas Muhammed, 21, and Aya Alhaj Otman, 32, are two women from Aleppo living in Turkey’s Gaziantep city. The two did not know each other when they were living in Syria, but became friends at a job they worked at in Gaziantep.

Rukas Muhammed left Aleppo in 2013 with her mother, her sister and her three brothers. Her father remained back in Syria. She has been living in Gaziantep since, and is happy to find formal work to support her family.

Aya Alhaj Othman left Aleppo in 2014, now living with her parents and her younger sisters and brothers in Gaziantep. She says that she is happy that they are producing at least 15,000 masks a day, sometimes up to 30,000, depending partly on whether the electricity is working and the machine functioning properly. “We do the best we can, we strive very hard,” she says.

Today, the two work for Gaziantep’s GESOB (Gaziantep Union of Chambers of Artisans and Craftsmen), producing face masks that are then distributed for free among Gaziantep’s industrial zone that has 4,500 enterprises and about 40-50,000 workers. The zone is visited by about 100,000 people daily.

A statement provided by ILO Office for Turkey explains that “In only 3 months, one million high-quality face masks have been produced by trained locals and Syrian refugees, at GESOB’s Vocational Training Center, located in the city’s industrial zone.”

Mehmet Guller, GESOB’s training manager, says the chamber of artisans started worrying about what to do in the face of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. They decided that it would be a good idea to produce disinfectant stands and face masks, and started looking for funding.

“We started looking for a way to finance this idea, and talked with ILO [International Labour Organization] and UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] representatives,” Guller says. ILO Office for Turkey agreed to train Syrian refugees, 10 men and 10 women, to produce 500 disinfectant stands that would be operated by foot. “And UNDP Turkey helped purchase a machine to produce face masks,” Guler adds.

“In June 2020, we signed a deal with ILO,” Guller recalls. “The project was initially supposed to last for three months, but because of delays and people dropping off, as well as lockdowns because of the pandemic, it lasted until the end of January 2021.”

According to Guller, of the 10 men who were working on producing disinfectant stands, 8 graduated from the programme, and seven of these eight were employed elsewhere at the end of the programme.

As for women, who specialised in producing personal protective equipment (PPE), from preparing the fabric to packaging, there were three at the end of the programme, two of whom [Rukas Muhammed and Aya Alhaj Othman] are continuing to work producing face masks.

“There are four people producing masks: two of GESOB’s own staff, and two from the programme,” Guller clarifies. “Once we have a good amount, we sign over the masks to the chambers, and they distribute the masks among the workplaces going door to door.”

According to the ILO Office for Turkey statement, “ILO’s and UNDP’s joint efforts will also contribute to the institutions’ capacity development in and beyond the COVID-19 response context as the equipment will be handed over to GESOB. It is expected that the center’s production capacity will lead to the production of a total of 6 million face masks.”

ILO Office for Turkey says “This cooperation is implemented within the ‘Work Based Learning Programme – Isyerinde Mesleki Egitim ve Gelisim Programı (ISMEP)’, a new support programme of the ILO Office for Turkey.” The benefits of this programme is that participants “build their skills on-the-job and are formally employed from day one.”

According to Numan Ozcan, the Director of the ILO Office for Turkey, “To support all workers to gain a living in decent work conditions and protect workers’ health in their workplace, we are happy to keep on working with our partners and invest in people’s capacities.” Ozcan continues on to say: “Our cooperation, aligned with the national COVID-19 response strategy and human centred approach, is vital for creating the conditions for improved productivity, sustained and inclusive enterprises and decent work.”

ISMEP is a support scheme “implemented within the ‘Promoting Decent Work for Syrians under Temporary Protection and Turkish Citizens Project’ under the Refugee Response Programme  of the ILO Office for Turkey,” ILO writes. “The Project is funded by the Federal Republic of Germany through the KfW Development Bank and is implemented by the International Labour Organization (ILO) Office for Turkey in coordination with the Turkish Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Services.”

Turkey has more than four million refugees, the majority of whom are Syrians under Temporary Protection (SuTP). According to ILO Office for Turkey, “Out of over 2.16 million Syrians of working age in Turkey, 1 million are estimated to participate in the labour market, most of them informally in low-skilled jobs.” ILO Office for Turkey is working on helping refugees strengthen their position in the job market and find “decent work” that will sustain and enrich them.

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