April 24, 2019
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Stitch by stitch: Learning to sew brings immigrants closer to home

PORTLAND, Maine — Bent over a Singer sewing machine, Sherina Faizizada tries to puzzle out a dress pattern, inspecting it every which way. Her instructor, Adele Ngoy, swoops in to assist.

At her side, Shookria Abid of Afghanistan holds up a colorful, floral dress for feedback. Examining the loose hemline, Ngoy is not impressed.

“That is good, but it could be better,” she tells her trainee amid the click-clacking of nearby machines.

It’s Wednesday morning, and The Sewing Academy is in session.

Since November, a cluster of immigrant women who moved to Maine to escape wars in Afghanistan, Rwanda and Congo, have met at Portland makerspace A Gathering of Stitches twice per week for free sewing instruction. For women such as Faizizada, who lives on a limited income with seven children, the classes are more than a hobby or onramp to a better job.

One day, in the not too distant future, she hopes her newly acquired skills will allow her to clothe herself and family in traditional Afghan attire.

Of all the things this international group of women miss — food, holidays, friends and family — native dress is chief among them. For immigrants, garments provide more than protection. The way they dress connects them to the living history they had to leave behind.

Faizizada, wants to learn to make a Punjabi suit, flowing and multilayered, to reflect her culture and heritage. Once the home health aid advances to the next level in the sewing class, that could happen.

“We miss everything. It’s so different — daily life, food,” said Ngoy, a Congolese refugee sharing her top-flight design skills she learned in fashion school in the Democratic Republic of Congo with this eclectic group new to Maine.

If the best way to assimilate new surroundings is through meaningful work in the community, Ngoy has excelled. While living in the Congo, she designed clothing for the elite. In Portland she has made everything from custom suits to wedding gowns. Her cozy, stylish fleece jackets are sold in Old Port boutiques.

Now she holds classes for women from Lewiston, Westbrook and Portland to learn to make aprons, pants and dresses. Just as Ngoy was hired by David’s Bridal in Portland immediately after moving here 16 years ago, her students are being groomed to become professional seamstresses. Though many have never used a sewing machine before, all are eager.

Ancille Mukazayire of Rwanda wants to succeed so she can make and sell her own clothes. “It’s not easy,” she said, looking up from her sewing machine. “But it’s good. It’s a good opportunity.”

That opportunity would be out of reach if Ngoy were not sharing her knowledge free of charge.

“It is a skill you can take with you that can help you find a job anywhere,” Ngoy said. “We want to teach people and try to bring it into the community.”

The program is part of Women United Around the World, a nonprofit Ngoy founded to empower women through vocational training. A fashion show March 12 in Portland will serve as a fundraiser to help initiatives such as The Sewing Academy flourish and remain free to participants. Many fashions made by Ngoy’s students will be sold at the show.

Because so many female immigrants want to learn the craft, Ngoy hopes to train another instructor to hold classes in different parts of the state.

“I want to teach and share all the experience I have so more people can find jobs. There are a lot of jobs in Maine for manufacturing,” Ngoy said. “The main problem is to find good seamstresses.”

Women United Around the World holds its seventh annual International Women’s Day Fashion Show Gala and Fundraiser from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, March 12, at the Italian Heritage Center, 40 Westland Ave. Portland. To purchase tickets visit womenunitedaroundtheworld.org.


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