When Ami McKay decided to help sponsor a Syrian refugee family coming to British Columbia, all she knew was that she was extending a hand to people in need. What she didn’t know is that the mother in the family could sew. But when she found out, she was ecstatic.
“I have so much fabric,” McKay laughs, recalling the scene. “I’ve been planning on doing something with it for so long.”
As an interior designer for her firm Pure Design, the Lion’s Bay-based McKay has access to excess fabric. When she learned that Salma Muhammad—a wife and mother who was sponsored, along with her husband and children, by the Lion’s Bay group It Takes a Village—was a trained tailor, the idea for a collection of Pure pillows took shape. Using handmade fabrics sourced from around the globe (with some donated from McKay’s friend Kelly Taylor, and some from her own collection), Muhammad crafts gorgeous, unique cushion covers.
“The fabrics come from different places in the world,” explains McKay, going through the colourful pillows on display in her contemporary pop-up showroom on Hastings. Made with feathered down or a hypoallergenic insert, the pillows are unlike anything seen in a commercial design boutique. One of them, McKay points out, uses fabric made by an elderly woman in Thailand, intricately painted with a brush held between her teeth. Another is made of a recycled African baby carrier that was dipped in indigo. Each pillow bears its own unique story—much like their creator.
“It was difficult trying to get [to Canada],” says Muhammad, communicating through an interpreter. From her new home in Burnaby, Muhammad soothes one of her children as she exchanges Kurmanji with a male translator on the phone. When ISIS invaded her village in Syria, Muhammad escaped with her husband and two young ones to a UNICEF camp in Northern Iraq. For the next three years, they suffered under unimaginable conditions including insufficient water and the perpetual fear of aircraft flying overhead. It was there Muhammad gave birth to her third child before eventually being sponsored by It Takes a Village. “It wasn’t easy, but we did it so that we could build a better future for our children,” Muhammad says of the tumultuous journey, “so that they feel protected.”
Familiar with her own struggles as a single mom, McKay gets emotional looking back on that period of her life. “In that particular year, a lot of bad things happened. My mom died, my marriage fizzled, and I had to shut down one of my businesses,” she says. It was due to the help of Taylor—her fellow contributor to the Pure pillows project—that she was able to recover and build a life again. “Kelly lifted me up and she gave us a home. I said to her, ‘How can I ever repay you?’” McKay recalls. “And she said, ‘Just be successful.’”
This empowerment is at the core of the Pure pillows line. Not only is Muhammad compensated for her work, but with each piece sold, she gets a percentage of the profits. While her three children are at school or asleep, Muhammad sews together the covers, sometimes adding her own personal touch in the form of colourful pompoms. Together with her husband Nihad, who works for a construction company related to McKay’s business, the family has become self-sufficient since arriving here in 2017.
“I would like to express my appreciation for what Ami has done, and her friends as well,” says Muhammad. “I really thank them for what they are doing in supporting me.”
Despite rushing here from a job site, McKay’s smile is warm and genuine, matching the interiors she creates. She is patient and passionate. “My goal for Pure is to go around the world and find products that we can design in collaboration with women,” McKay asserts. As she looks towards the future, this dream might not be so far off.