Give Your Best brings joy, as well as clothes, to the refugees it supportsINSTAGRAM / @GIVEYOURBEST.UK

I meet Sol Escobar over zoom. Having established the non-profit Give Your Best a year ago, in the full throes of the pandemic, she is a veteran video caller. Founded to tackle the clothing poverty confronting female asylum seekers, refugees, and women with no recourse to public funds, around 800 people have already donated over 6,000 items to Give Your Best — and it shows no sign of slowing down. There is already talk of expansion to other countries, and partnering with fashion brands to help them to meet their sustainability targets by passing on their unsold stock to women in need. “I don’t know where this could go!” Sol tells me, laughing.

The donation model pioneered by Sol is different from that of other, similar organisations. With Give Your Best, prospective donors submit the details of the clothing they would like to give, before a team of volunteers upload these items to an online catalogue. Women who have registered as recipients can then ‘shop’ this selection of clothing for free. When garments are shopped, the donors receive instructions detailing where to send the parcel. “We want to be the next Depop, for free, for good!” Escobar quips. In this manner, the non-profit avoids donation waste, something which Escobar learnt was all-too common on her trips to volunteer at the camps of Calais. When people donate to Give Your Best, Sol stresses, they know that “every item which is shopped for free is going to be worn.”

“we want to be the next Depop, for free, for good”

However, the benefits of this shopping system extend beyond the environmental. The element of choice is important for “personal, psychological reasons”. As Escobar recounts, Give Your Best originated in a succession of conversations she had with a community of female refugees in Wales, who described how difficult it was to access clothing. Within a few days, Escobar had assembled a collection of donated clothes in a range of sizes, posting photos of each garment on Instagram for the women to choose from, because “I didn’t want to just send them random clothes that I didn’t know whether they would like.”

Kemi, a mother of four from Nigeria, who has benefitted from Give Your Best and is now volunteering with, and profiled by, the non-profitINSTAGRAM / @GIVEYOURBEST.UK

Initially, the women Sol worked with were hesitant, urging her not to go to all that “trouble”. Their experiences, she reflects, had left them with “that sense of ‘I’m not worth a choice, I’m only worth what people give me’”. Give Your Best thus seeks challenge the paternalism of traditional charitable exchanges, and to help to rebuild the agency, autonomy and dignity of refugee women across the UK. The effect can be transformative. “We had women who, when they first started shopping with us would just shop what they needed”, dogged by the idea that they didn’t deserve clothes which reflected their taste and their style. “And now, the same people will send us a photo of them in a dress they chose just because it was beautiful and it made them feel good.”

“first and foremost they are women — and they have a fashion sense and they like clothes”

The transfer of clothes facilitated by Give Your Best can be powerful in other ways, too. As Sol explains, “regardless of their immigration status and the situation that they find themselves in, first and foremost they are women — and they have a fashion sense and they like clothes. I think that’s one of the things that really appeals to people donating to us. They know that on the other side of the package there’s going to be a woman that is their same size, likes the same clothes, but who is living a completely different reality.” The directness of the exchange and the personal nature of clothing thus play an important role in humanising the recipients of donations, leading donors to recognise them as individuals behind the hyperbolic headlines.

Moreover, as Sol is keen to emphasise, this exchange is not confined to clothing; many people gifting garments include messages in the parcels they send, expressing their support for the women on the receiving end. Sol tells me about one of the first ‘shoppers’ of Give Your Best, who now volunteers with the organisation, and for whom the messages in the parcels were incredibly important. “She didn’t know that she was welcome in the UK until she started receiving those notes because everything she saw online about people like her was negative.” While the clothes themselves may allow recipients to rebuild a sense of worth, the implicit and explicit support that comes with them “is even more meaningful.” 


Mountain View

The classism of sustainable fashion

As Escobar and I wrap up our conversation, it’s hard not to think about the current events darkening the landscape for refugees coming to Britain. The situation in Afghanistan is forcing scores of people to flee their homes, while the planned Nationality and Borders Bill seeks to make it even more difficult for individuals to seek asylum in the UK. Despite this, we end on a hopeful note. As Sol observes, the pandemic did “wake people up” slightly, by highlighting inequalities and the need for mutual support, and she hopes her non-profit might serve as inspiration to others. “I don’t have a background in social entrepreneurship, I have no experience of running my own non-profit, and I’ve managed to do it alongside working full-time in education!”

Escobar points out that there are organisations in Cambridge itself which work with refugees and asylum seekers. From the Cambridge Refugee Resettlement Campaign, to the Cambridge Convoy refugee action group, or even Give Your Best itself (which is currently in need of both donations and volunteers), there are many possible avenues for Cambridge students seeking to help implement change and advocate for marginalised people. Sol’s passion is infectious, and I find myself mentally sifting through my wardrobe for items suitable to donate as she concludes, succinctly and cogently: “If you have an idea, give it a go, and if you’re supportive of a community, do it loudly.”