The Formation of The Sewing Program
In 2016, World Relief conducted a focus group with recently-arrived Afghan families in Seattle, WA. In it, we discovered that while many of the Afghan men are well-educated and fluent in English, most of the women, like Fatima, are pre-literate, meaning they cannot read or write in their own language. In Afghanistan, where women are culturally bound to stay at home surrounded by friends and family, this presents few issues. Isolated and alone in a new nation, and unable to communicate with others, however, this tradition was hugely damaging to these newly arrived women who were clearly suffering, and in some cases even struggling with depression.
Husbands in the focus group identified this isolation as an insurmountable challenge and sadness, and wanted an opportunity for their wives to participate in activities with other women. As we brainstormed solutions together, the group raised the idea of sewing. As we talked through the potential of a vocational ESL and skill-building sewing program, we realized that not only would it give the women the opportunity to learn new skills that are prized culturally, but that it could also pave the way for them to learn English and join together in community with other refugee women, supported by one another.
The barriers to developing a sewing program however, seemed insurmountable. Where would we find volunteer teachers, sewing machines and adequate space to provide a sewing class for this especially vulnerable group of women? How would we address the issues of transportation and childcare?
Enter Jeanine Boyle.
Jeanine attends Hillside Church, a partner of World Relief Seattle, and is also a national educator for the Singer Sewing Machine company. Three years earlier, Jeanine had felt strongly about starting a sewing class for women. She asked her company for some donations and received ten sewing machines for her class at a local non-profit, yet sadly the logistical issues did not work out. Consequently, Jeanine had 10 machines sitting in her garage.
With the help of Hillside Church and other volunteers, we cleared out space at the church that could be used for a sewing classroom, with an adjoining room for childcare. Two retired members of the church with carpentry experience helped to build four beautifully designed cutting tables, saving several thousand dollars. Our English (ELS) teachers at World Relief helped design the English portions of the class. And Jeanine, with her vast sewing education experience, developed a sewing curriculum. Volunteers came from churches all over, and in February 2017 we enrolled our first cohort of students.
For many of the volunteers this would be the first time they had ever interacted with refugee women, especially Muslim women. Even Jeanine herself had deep reservations about this new experience.
“My life did not include any contact with anyone of the Muslim faith. I had a lot of apprehensions about starting this whole journey. I had a fear of what I did not know. But teaching this class has been a life changing experience. I love these women.”
For highly skilled volunteers like Jeanine, this service is a sacrificial labor of love. Jeanine owns an interior design business and has to juggle her extremely busy business schedule to spend time teaching and preparing for the sewing classes. Yet Jeanine is motivated by love, and by her desire to help bear the burdens of these women, coming alongside them in support.
Debra Voelker, Missions Director at Hillside Church, also volunteers by managing the day-to-day operational details of the class. Debra drives over an hour to volunteer each week.
Like Jeanine, Debra realizes the burden these women face and seeks to ease it through love. She drives long distances and coordinates the many time consuming details each week in a tireless effort to foster and preserve the gift of life-giving relationships for these women.
“I’ve realized that women are women - wherever they are from. Our life circumstances are vastly different, but we have the same concerns – wanting to create a loving home for our families, wanting to provide for our kids, the joy of being in a safe community, and sharing with like-minded women,” Debra says.
The impact of our sewing program has been transformative. Many of the volunteers, including both Jeanine and Debra, have been invited into the homes of the participants and have reciprocated in kind. The sharing of food and friendship outside of class has formed lasting bonds. It has been a beautiful and mutually transformative journey for all the women involved.
Several weeks ago, I ran into Fatima at the local grocery store. She called out my name and we enthusiastically greeted each other in the bulk section. She asked about my children, my husband and my health. We compared our carts and asked each other what we were going to cook. We hugged goodbye and I got a little teary eyed as I reflected on the power of a simple conversation, which wouldn’t have been possible even five months before without the investment of amazing volunteers like Jeanine and Debra.
Yet our sewing program is just one example. Whether it be in the classrooms of Hillside Church, in local community gardens, in hospital waiting rooms, in social security lines, or simply in our living rooms at home, the loving relationships between our volunteers and newly arrived refugees and immigrants has been a joy to witness.
Jeanine and Debra’s story is one of so many, and it’s hard to put their dedication and sacrifice into words. We have volunteers who have sacrificed friendships and even jobs as they’ve embraced God’s call to welcome the stranger, put their love into action, and lighten the burden of others. Oftentimes they are fearful. Oftentimes they are reluctant. Oftentimes it just seems too difficult. Yet they listen, they trust, and the fruits are transformative not only for those they serve, but also for them. It is an example that inspires, and one that should encourage each one of us as we think about how we might continue to live lives of love in the year ahead.
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” – Galatians 6:2
Tahmina Martelly serves at the Programs Manager for World Relief Seattle. Originally from Dhaka, Bangladesh, Tahmina lived in Yemen before arriving at a farm in Idaho. A registered dietitian by education, Tahmina has worked with refugee and immigrant resiliency projects for the last 25 years. Most recently, she taught at the University of Utah, division of Nutrition and developed and taught computer literacy classes at the Utah Refugee Education Center. Tahmina has been with World Relief Seattle since 2017 overseeing the new resiliency project multiplier and managing state-funded employment and case management programs.