TEL AVIV — On the second floor of a dilapidated building in south Tel Aviv, a burst of color and cheerful energy emerges from a small room. Inside, pockets of chatter in a variety of languages hum through the sunlit studio. About a dozen women, squeezed onto three couches draped in brightly patterned fabric, are crocheting baskets. Others wash dishes or make small talk around a kitchen table.

These women are some of the more than 90 African asylum seekers to find a second home at Kuchinate, an arts collective that empowers women to make household items out of recycled fabric using the art of crochet.

Once a project is completed, the women from the collective decide how much to charge for it. This basket, an original design, caused lively discussion as they discussed a price. (Godland News / Liz Donovan)

Surrounding the women are dozens of already completed baskets in a variety of shapes and shades lining shelves, stacked in corners, strewn on tables and overflowing onto the floor. Other more ambitious handmade projects, like three-legged stools, rugs and poufs, are scattered among the inventory.

An array of baskets created by the Kuchinate women on display at the Tel Aviv studio. (Godland News / Liz Donovan)

Kuchinate provides the women an opportunity to earn money to support their families. But, more importantly, the collaborative nature of the collective, as well as the soothing act of crocheting itself, enables them to have a sense of stability and community. It also gives them a connection to home. They perform traditional coffee ceremonies for visitors, cook native dishes (I was served a heaping plate of chickpeas and spongy African flatbread called injera) and speak their own languages – Kuchinate means “crochet” in Tigrinya, a language spoken in Eritrea, for example.

Much has been written in recent months about the tens of thousands of migrants living illegally in Israel and Israel’s controversial plan – temporarily on hold – to deport them en mass to Africa. More than three quarters of the migrants are men, but the story of the women is rarely told. Many of the women who entered the country through eastern Sudan and the Sinai Peninsula were victims of torture, sexual assault and human trafficking.

According to the United National Refugee Agency, about 90 percent of the some 38,500 African asylum seekers and refugees currently in Israel originate from Eritrea and Sudan. Others come from Nigeria, Ivory Coast and other areas of Africa. About 17 percent of the population of asylum seekers are women and about half of the women are registered as mothers, according to a report by the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel. Because of their immigration status, they’re denied access to government assistance programs and health care and are at risk for exploitation. Their struggle is what inspired the creation of the collective.

“I made sure that Kuchinate was born from the desire to provide psychological, economic and social empowerment to women who were in a desperate state of survival,” co-founder Diddy Mymin Kahn wrote on the nonprofit’s website.

Kahn, a South African psychologist specializing in trauma, runs the center with Azezet Habtezghi Kidane, a Catholic nun originally from Eritrea, who provides spiritual support as well as counseling to the women. Known as Sister Aziza, Kidane is well respected internationally for her humanitarian efforts. Her work with refugees earned her the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking In Persons Heroes Award in 2012. In 2016, she and Kahn co-penned a support manual entitled A Guide to Recovery for Survivors of Torture.

Kuchinate volunteer Gina Walker, a student at Tel Aviv University studying global migration and policy, says that the relationship between Kahn, whom she describes as a “powerhouse,” and Kidane, who is more grounded, is key to the success of the collective. “They balance each other,” Walker said. “You need someone to have the big ideas and someone to tame it.”

This month, the voices of the Kuchinate women are being heard all the way across the world in New York City. Through the collective, four women collaborated with Israeli fiber artist Gil Yefman to break out of the basket-making mold and create life-sized crochet artworks for an art exhibition about sexual assault and genocide called “Violated! Women in Holocaust and Genocide.” From inside each piece, decorated with images relating to each woman’s experience, a recording of the artist sharing a personal story will play. The exhibition, produced by the Remember the Women Institute, can be viewed at the Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Gallery (31 Mercer St. in Manhattan) from April 12 to May 12.

Yefman is hopeful more women from the collective will be empowered to use their art as a way to express themselves freely and share their personal experiences. He added that the collaboration gave the women the experience of “stepping outside of the collective while creating a better resonance for the collective.”

Mostly, though, the women work on the craft as a way to support themselves and their families. “They’re in survival mode,” says Walker. “They’re very focused on making money to feed the children.”

Favor Agbo, one of the first women to join the collective and a skillful craftswoman, is quick to lend a hand to her peers. On a balmy Monday afternoon in March, I watched as Agbo closely inspected a half-completed basket. Seeing an error in the carefully stitched handicraft, she removed a few inches of string and turned to the woman sitting to her right who had asked for help.

“Use your finger,” Agbo demonstrated, holding a bright pink-tipped fingernail against the mustard-colored fabric as she expertly maneuvered the needle through the opening she created with her hand. “Don’t pull.” She returned the basket to the artist, who cautiously followed Agbo’s instructions. When the woman completed the small basket later that afternoon, she held it up triumphantly, inspiring whoops and cheers from around the room.

That basket will sell for little more than a few dozen shekels (about $10 USD). “The money is nothing, but we’re happy,” said Agbo.

Walker, who was interviewed in Tel Aviv this spring just before the Jewish festival of Passover, explained that recognizing the struggle of these women, who work in a constant state of instability, is essential now more than ever. “For Passover, we’re celebrating our freedom,” she said. “These are people who are not free.”

A version of this story appeared on Religion News Service.