Creating Companion

Kareen Durbin participated in the Residential Internship (now Residential Fellowship) in 2010/11. Kareen and her husband Will started a social enterprise called Companion in 2016, helping migrants and former refugees adapt to life in Aotearoa and provide work opportunities. In this piece, Kareen reflects on the nature of this work and what motivates them.


How many of us would make different career decisions from our 17-year-old selves? I would, certainly, but I wonder if my work would have found its way here regardless? 

I studied fashion. I found myself wrestling with some discomfort in this context pretty promptly. I was aware people were—and are—being abused at society’s expense as we consume and discard in cumulatively grotesque quantities. There’s little regard for each item’s true cost as retail prices drop. Also, the extreme environmental impact was becoming increasingly difficult to dismiss, not least because these issues—consumption and environmental impact—are intertwined. It was a while ago now, and before any ethical considerations within the curriculum, so I stayed on, using postgraduate research to think these things through. This study was simply a starting point—an inconclusive exploration into one possible design method, intending to integrate restorative processes rather than ones that are destructive. Always squeezing in travel as time and budget allowed, in the midst of this research I spent time in Kolkata with Freeset. I so enjoyed that cross-cultural creative scenario as I taught women to use overlockers with no shared language, that I pivoted my project (and personal work since) to engage collaboratively with migrants and former refugees now residing in Aotearoa.

About to leave the country to spend a winter somewhat adrift in the Pacific, I visited Wellington, trying to make last minute connections that might lead to creative encounters and direct me towards particular islands. Coincidentally, I stayed on the couch of a friend who knew Will. He introduced us. A bit like me, Will had been working alongside former refugees, befriending a few guys as they figured out the practical and relational realities of resettlement. That initial conversation became promptly orientated around our respective use of Master’s research projects to examine Social Enterprise (Will’s was in Development Studies). As far as my immediate trip was concerned, it was a bit off topic. But, regardless, it was a valuable encounter… we kept talking. We got married.

And we started a social business. Five years ago (on our honeymoon actually), we began considering the initial iterations of what came to be Companion, a slow and small project in which we work alongside migrants and former refugees we met through friends of friends and word of mouth. Secure, meaningful employment is a crucial component for refugee and migrant integration. At the same time, creative work offers a catalyst for connecting well with others. Initially, as we explored possibilities, the project spanned a range of handcrafted items, from furniture to textile pieces. Companion now produces ever-essential sun hats, prioritising the use of sustainable textiles to provide protection. 

The people we work with are the reason we began Companion. They’ve come from a variety of countries and are directly contributing to our increasingly multicultural society. So Companion is a celebration of diversity. Our founding question was: “How can we generate desirable employment opportunities by utilising skills carried via migration?” This is still our main motivation, but we’ve found that the goal of dignified work needs to sit alongside the issue of waste minimisation because “virtually all of our consumption now is extravagant, and virtually all of it consumes the world” (Wendell Berry).

And so our hats are reconstructed from discarded textile items or vintage and deadstock fabrics. This adds constraints and a measure of frustration to the design and production process, but relinquishing control in favour of using found materials brings other benefits: pieces have more personality when traces of the prior life of the textile are integrated, such as seam detailing or gradients of tone in denim where a pocket once was. We then post purchases in recycled plastic packaging, ideally to local locations. We tout the less-but-better buying philosophy: “Please purchase thoughtfully with the intention of long-term possession.” But, truthfully, while the need for Aotearoa to detox from consumption (however ethical) is urgent, we require ongoing sales to continue our work. It’s a process about which I feel fraught. 

In addition to these challenges, I’m sometimes cynical about fashion cycles, and I have concerns about adding to the distractions of social media. Still, I love the people and the process. And we’re committed to crafting items of increasing quality through repetition. Those we’re collaborating with are now firm friends, friends our two-year-old enjoys as much as we do.

I am a mother and a maker. I hope my daughter catches glimpses of work well done as she observes what I do. Because there is, of course, value in creating, an intrinsic good in contributing things of beauty, and a sense of full humanness in acts that mirror those of God. And there’s pleasure in working with others (especially for me, cross-culturally) to explore and resolve concepts. Let’s not overlook such aspects as an old Afghan woman’s potential to contribute just because her English is minimal. What could be a more wonderful way of making?

When asked, “What do you think God has to say about your work?”, I respond: I hope, on seeing it, He would say “It is good.”

(Images: Supplied by Kareen Durbin, 2021)