They’re among the newest refugees to the United States, having arrived just before the coronavirus almost entirely closed the country’s borders. Yet they’re already finding a way to help protect their new home.

About a dozen refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, are working from their new residences in New Jersey sewing masks to help protect against COVID-19. Shut out of the regular workforce because of the pandemic, they have produced more than 2,000 $10 organic fabric masks in a variety of styles. The masks are sold online through their resettlement agency’s Global Grace Marketplace, and at local farmers’ markets and fair trade stores across the country.

Hina Amin, one of the sewers, left Afghanistan with her husband and two young sons in December because her husband’s IT job for the U.S. military put their family’s lives in danger from the Taliban. Their Special Immigrant Visas took 3 ½ years to process, and they were resettled in North Brunswick, NJ in December.

“You are moving to a new country, you don’t have anyone there, like any family members or friends, nobody is there for you,” Amin said.

That’s when Interfaith Rise, a church-based resettlement agency with an army of volunteers, stepped in. As the pandemic shut down the economy, furloughing refugees who had just started working, Interfaith Rise began distributing sewing machines to those with sewing experience. One of the refugees developed a prototype, volunteers filmed how-to videos in a variety of languages, and a refugee-only workforce was formed. Interfaith Rise provides the materials.

“It means that they are able to have employment during this time when they would not have any money coming in,” said Hannah Wymer, an Interfaith Rise volunteer who co-founded the program. The job pays about $15 an hour. “For some of them it has boosted their self-esteem because they're able to to be doing something as opposed to just sitting and waiting.”

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Before the pandemic, Interfaith Rise had purchased fabric so refugees could create tote bags to be sold at its Global Grace Marketplace, which is both online and a pop-up shop at the Reformed Church of Highland Park. Instead, the fabric was repurposed for the masks. Refugees also produce surgical caps for healthcare workers.

Amin said she can churn out four masks an hour. “I’m staying at home and I can keep an eye on my kids,” Amin said. “And I can help people...I love to help people any way I can. I love the people of New Jersey. They are like welcoming people, open-hearted...I am very excited to stay here and live here.”

Refugee admissions to the United States have dropped dramatically in recent years. Despite the fact that there are more displaced people worldwide than ever before, President Trump reduced the number of refugees to the nation’s lowest level since the refugee system was created more than four decades ago.

The pandemic further limited admissions. In the first half of 2020, just 308 refugees resettled in New York and New Jersey, compared to 2,268 during the same period in 2016, according to the Refugee Processing Center.

The "hearing masks" made by recently arrived refugee Mukhtar Hossein Dad in New Jersey. The masks feature a plastic mouth covering so the deaf can read the lips of the wearer.

The "hearing mask" made by recently arrived refugee Mukhtar Hossein Dad in New Jersey. The masks feature a plastic mouth covering so the deaf can read the lips of the wearer.

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The "hearing mask" made by recently arrived refugee Mukhtar Hossein Dad in New Jersey. The masks feature a plastic mouth covering so the deaf can read the lips of the wearer.
Rick Bajornas/International Rescue Committee

Mukhtar Hossein Dad, another recent arrival from Afghanistan, lost his job as a tailor at Men’s Warehouse due to the virus. So he started making masks, and came up with what he calls his “invention” -- washable so-called “hearing masks” with transparent fronts, so the deaf can read the lips of those they’re communicating with. The hearing masks are sold online and at a local audiologist’s office.

Dad works from home -- like so many Americans. “In my bedroom -- life is too funny,” he said.

Matt Katz reports on air at WNYC about immigration, refugees, hate, and national security. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattkatz00.