A refugee’s journey does not end when they escape their homeland. In fact, in many ways it is just beginning. Less than 1% of the global refugee population can pass the first of nine screenings required by the United States, which include background checks, document screening, and biometric data collection. It is a long, uphill battle that refugees face to gain a new home to raise their families in peace and safety.
But for all the perils of the physical journey and the rigors of navigating political channels, it is the resettlement in a new country can be the true test of spirit. Refugees do not know where they will be placed and there is little they can do to prepare themselves for the culture shock of living in a new country. They may not speak the language, their skills may not translate easily into the workforce, and they only possess what they could carry when they fled to start a new life. Employment, housing, transportation, healthcare, and mental well-being are all issues refugees encounter while also navigating feelings of isolation.
“I knew there were many refugees in Nashville but I didn’t understand their struggles,” said Rita Atkins, Founder of Sew for Hope, a Nashville nonprofit that teaches refugee women marketable sewing skills. “I was just haunted by the fact that the deck was so stacked against them here in the United States.”
“It was my thought that if I could teach them to sew, they could acclimate to the US, learn English, and maybe get jobs.”
Atkins, custom seamstress with over 40 years of sewing and business experience, decided to reach out to four Bhutanese refugee women in her community and offer them sewing lessons. Those four students quickly grew to dozens of refugee women each semester enrolling to take sewing classes at ThriftSmart on Nolensville Road.
“It was incredible how the women kept coming back and bringing their friends with them,” said Atkins. “We grew on word of mouth alone.”
One of the program’s most appealing aspects was the incentive for women to attend classes outside of sewing to accelerate their acclimation to Middle Tennessee. Students receive butterfly tokens for attending English as a Second Language (ESL), GED prep, and US citizenship classes. With these tokens, they can purchase donated fabric, notions, and crafting supplies for use at home.
“These supplies can be expensive, so our students get very excited to go shopping,” said Atkins.
Sew for Hope offers intermediate and advanced classes, in addition to their flagship basic sewing skills class, for $50 a semester. At the end of the course, participants must pass a comprehensive final exam to graduate and receive their certification.
“It is important that our participants learn excellent sewing skills so that we can help them find jobs,” said Lynn Creasy, Board Secretary and Volunteer Coordinator. “The certificate is evidence that the student has mastered the basic sewing class material. It is sometimes the first time the women have been recognized for achievement or worth in the community.”
With the sewing machines students also receive at graduation, Atkins and Creasy have seen graduates start their own sewing businesses while others work with local fashion designers or find work in factories for mass production. Students have even come back to the program as interpreters and teachers.
Pau Len Kiim, who started the beginners course in 2014 and now teaches other refugees how to sew, is one such graduate.
“For me, like women, we spend time at home with children. We don’t have a hope for jobs,” said Kiim, “sewing is, maybe will be hope, you know?”
Since its inception six years ago, the wages created from the students’ new skills and job placement has far surpassed what was required to train them.
“The amount spent is one third of what they have earned in income,” said Atkins, “and we do not take a commission for job placement.”
Looking to the future, Atkins hopes to one day expand Sew for Hope into a community center for not just refugee women, but other marginalized groups as well. “I would love to see it grow more into a training center where women who enjoy sewing can come together, take classes, and learn from each other so that they can earn an income,” said Creasy. There is also a long-term plan to one day publish the group’s curriculum so that communities outside of Middle Tennessee can start similar ministries.
“What we will need,” explained Atkins, “is additional volunteers to help with our classes and to build relationships with the women. The relationships are so important for these women to feel like they are a part of Nashville.”
To learn more about Sew for Hope and how to get involved, visit sewforhope.org
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