Common Threads: A Refugee Fashion Show Celebrating Diversity and Creativity

Nora Salitan | February 29, 2024

When I began working at CWS in September of 2021, I never anticipated I would find myself directing for a fashion show two and a half years later. But retracing the trajectory from the beginning of my time at CWS to Common Threads, our February 8th show this year—it all starts to make sense!

I started my career at CWS as a volunteer coordinator, supporting CWS Jersey City’s team of incredible case managers as they navigated the significant increase in refugee arrivals following the U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan. I had the pleasure of working directly with many Afghan clients, sharing meals in their homes, hearing their stories, playing with kids and seeing the beautiful textiles which they made and wore.

That last experience shaped my perspective as I transitioned into the role of CWS Jersey City’s development director in the fall of 2022. I was in awe of the incredible fashion-designing talents of so many of our clients, and I wanted to find ways to share them with a larger audience.

This led to my initiative of a project to raise money for sewing machines to be distributed to clients who wanted them, to pursue both economic self-sufficiency and creative passions. Thanks to the support of many generous partners like Kol Dorot Synagogue, The Sewing Machine Project and other individuals, we have distributed over 60 sewing machines and counting.

While providing clients with sewing machines was a significant step, we wanted to go further than merely giving clients the tools to make gorgeous clothing; we wanted to give them a platform to share them with the world.

Seeking ways to further support the development of our artist clients, we applied for a grant from the Jersey City Arts and Culture Trust fund to start a Refugee Art Collective, which we launched in July of 2023. The collective has allowed us to pay clients to teach art classes, purchase materials and exhibit their work. This grant, as well as our Local Arts Program Grant from Hudson County, supports artists of all mediums, from oil painting to cooking to puppeteering.

When I started another new role as the CWS Northeast Regional Development Coordinator this past December, I was determined to organize a fundraising event that was not just about raising money for our emergency programs, but also about highlighting and celebrating the diversity and talent of our clients.

With the help and support of Courtney Madsen, CWS’ Northeast Regional Director, we got to work planning the fashion show. We decided to name the show Common Threads to capture the interconnectedness of our programs, our clients, our supporters and our work around the world.

For me, the most exciting part of planning this event was the anticipation of the designs our clients would create. I found myself trying to control every single aspect of the night, from food to music to the tablecloths, to parking accessibility—but I still had no idea what the designers would come up with. All I knew is that clients from around the world, from Cuba to Ukraine to Afghanistan, were hard at work making brand new outfits.

The night of the event was a wonderfully fun surprise for me and for everyone else who attended or watched online. I was absolutely blown away by the variety of detailing, texture and color of all the outfits displayed. I felt that the designers were able to masterfully use clothing to celebrate their identities and tell their stories.

The night of the fashion show made me reflect on what CWS’ mission is built on: a world where people’s basic needs are met so that they can have the time, space, energy and resources to pursue their passions. It made me feel invigorated to keep working towards that mission and I hope many of you felt the same.

This video wonderfully captures the spirit of the night so I hope those of you who couldn’t make it will take the time to watch the video!
I hope the event inspires you to get involved in whatever way suits you through donating, volunteering to perhaps even mentoring a refugee artist. And we hope to see you again next year when we host the fashion show again.

Nora Salitan is CWS’ Northeast Regional Development Coordinator. To contribute to the ongoing work of CWS Jersey City, donate today!

Photo credit for all images in this post: Fear Hel Media