In light of our current political climate, it’s nice to have a reminder that we can do more together than apart. As I walked into the First Baptist Church Community Missions building, I was greeted by the sound of children's laughter. Jonny, one of the volunteers from Alcansa, lead a group of ten preschoolers in a quick calisthenic exercise before sitting them down to work on their letters. When one little boy became distracted, Jonny gently redirected him back to the task at hand, reminding him, “You are part of our team.”
Over the last two weeks, I learned exactly how large this team really is. Alcansa works to provide essential needs to individuals and groups in and from distressed areas of the world. In 2015, a few Alcansa volunteers partnered with ReEstablish Richmond to go into homes and visit with Afghan women to practice English. One of the volunteers, Lisl, began to notice that the women were also seeking opportunities to get out of the house. Sewing proved to be a common area of interest, and Alcansa began bringing the women to their office to teach them to sew, learn English, and provide some much needed socialization.
As interest grew, it became necessary to find a larger space to hold class. First Baptist stepped in to offer a more accommodating classroom. Local churches, businesses, and generous individuals donated sewing machines, fabric, and patterns. Rockin' Baby, a Richmond-based kids’ clothing manufacturer, donated bolts of fabric. ReEstablish Richmond helped to get the word out about the class. Keith, employment specialist at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), assisted with combining community resources, such as the Workforce Center and other agencies to expand this new program.
Lisl co-teaches with Anita (a former Home Economics teacher) and Rihab (a refugee woman from Iraq). The students are women from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Myanmar. The IRC is hoping to include some Congolese refugees in the future. After a 30-minute English lesson, the women work on sewing projects like aprons, bags, potholders and baby outfits. Many women have invited their friends, challenging the teachers to keep up with the rapid growth of the class, while serving students of varying skill sets.
As the class continues to grow, Lisl, Anita, and Rihab are developing a certification course they hope to launch in a few weeks. What started as a means for social interaction has now become a way for these women to become empowered to attain jobs. “The best day was when I was in the middle of teaching an English class and Keith and Kate took women to interview [at Hudson],” Lisl says. Hudson Industries has been manufacturing American-made good locally in Richmond since 1976. Kate Ayers is the Executive Director of ReEstablish Richmond.
I had the opportunity to speak with Rafiullah, the husband of one of the women interviewed that day. Shahida is a refugee from Afghanistan and the mother of six who had never worked outside her home. Rafiullah explained that theirs was a “traditional” household: he worked to make money while she stayed at home and took care of the children. Now that their youngest is four years old and the older children are in school, Shahida had some extra time on her hands. Their resettlement caseworker connected them to Kate, who in turn told Shahida about the sewing class. After attending the class for six months, Shahida went with Kate and Keith to interview for a sewing position at Hudson. Rafiullah said that the interview was very easy for Shahida, thanks to her experience in class as well as additional ESL courses.
Rafiullah warmly conveyed that Shahida is very happy with her new job. She feels comfortable with the machines at Hudson and enjoys her co-workers. They both feel it is a good fit for her and are so thankful to Hudson, Alcansa, ReEstablish Richmond, and the IRC for providing this opportunity.
The IRC looks to the community to increase client opportunities. According to Keith, “It is working with the community that makes resettlement successful." Shahida’s story is a prime example. The sewing class and the subsequent jobs the women are able to attain help refugees assimilate by empowering them to become more productive and giving them a chance to give back to society.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Lisl: “I don’t know how to sew - a lot of people want to help but don’t feel they have money, time or experience – but we’re making it happen, and it’s worth it. Doing the little bit they can will be helpful and effective.” This rings true for both the refugees and the community in which we all live, together.