Naomi Niyukuli spent 12 years in a refugee camp in Tanzania when her family fled Burundi.
She was desperate for something to occupy her mind while she languished at the camp.
“But I didn’t find anything,” she said quietly, her hands clinging to a piece of black and white fabric.
She smiled as she ran the fabric through a sewing machine at the Creative Sewing Atelier on Harbour Drive in St. John’s — putting the final touches on a tote bag.
Niyukuli arrived in St. John’s three years ago.
“Now I can spend my time on a sewing machine and maybe forget something,” she said.
“No stress — this means a lot to me.”
She’s one of many people to benefit from the free sewing lessons offered at the program in downtown St. John’s.
The first class was offered in February and had 16 beginner-level students.
Word of the program spread quickly — today there are about 60 students.
They come from all over the world — immigrants, refugees, and locals all gather together to learn the skill, and learn about one another.
On the wall in the cozy, brightly-painted classroom there’s a photo of a woman, Kathryn (Cassie) Brown.
She seems to peer out over the group of 10 students from inside the picture frame.
At the bottom of the frame reads a quote by Francis Bacon:
“If a man can be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world.”
The classroom itself is named after the woman in the picture — the Kathryn Brown Creative Sewing Atelier.
Cassie died of cancer in 2017, but it was her dying wish to donate eight of her sewing machines to benefit new Canadians.
“She hoped that her donation would assist new Canadians to live and thrive, as she had done, in her beloved province and country,” it says underneath her photo.
Cassie’s son, David, recalls how she benefitted from sewing lessons when he was a young boy.
The first thing she made was an apron.
Soon, she discovered she had a knack for sewing.
Over time, Cassie became well-known in St. John’s for doing good work — especially for making curtains.
As her skills progressed, she would upgrade her equipment, eventually ending up with a small collection of sewing machines.
David said his mother was a generous, shy person who was particularly affected by the plight of Syrian refugees.
“When the pictures were on the TV of that baby washing up (on shore) — that hit her particularly hard,” he said.
After she died, her family went about fulfilling her wish and got in touch with the Refugee and Immigrant Advisory Council (RIAC).
Sewing and socializing
Soon after, a plan was hatched by RIAC staff to offer a program that would create equal access to sewing lessons and production for the whole community.
That word —community — is perhaps the most accurate way to describe what the Creative Sewing Atelier has become in just a few months.
“A lot of the people coming in just enjoy the social environment, not just sewing,” said instructor Kerri Ivany.
At the end of each semester, participants get together for a potluck, making dishes from their own cultures.
“It’s not only they are learning how to sew and learning new skills, they are making friends, exchanging culture,” said project co-ordinator assistant Nehal Alshik.
Alshik said the program also benefits people who are learning to speak English, giving them a relaxed social environment in which to converse with native English speakers.
A map on the wall in the sewing room is indicative of the diversity of participants — everyone’s placed a pin where they are from — the pins mark the Philippines, China, India, Iran, Zimbabwe, Libya, Columbia, and the list goes on.
Alshik said the skills they learn can translate to job opportunities for participants.
RIAC has a table at the St. John’s Farmers’ Market where some students have sold their creations.
They also sell pet clothing and accessories to put funds back into the program to help keep it free for participants.
Alshik said she’s amazed at how much people have learned in just a few months.
“These ladies who didn’t know how to touch the machine when they began — one of them made a dress for her daughter, another one made comfy clothes for Christmas. I was shocked.”
She said there’s big plans for the future.
They’ve already initiated a Create to Donate program in which they make items to donate to different community groups. Their first donation will be Christmas decorations for seniors at Chancellor Park.
There are also plans for a multicultural fashion show in March.
“Hopefully one day maybe we’ll have a factory here, you never know,” said Alshik.
David, a former member of the military, has sent a few of his military colleagues to the Atelier to have their uniforms altered.
“Whatever I can do to support them, that’s what I’ll do,” he said.
David is also private secretary to Lt-Gov. Judy Foote.
Through his work at Government House, David hopes to also support the sewing program however he can.
“If we need tablecloths, I’ll go there,” he said.
What would his mother make of the program that’s flourished because of her donation?
Tears brimmed his eyes at the thought.
“She’d be proud,” he said, his voice shaking.
“She’d be very, very proud.”
As for Niyukuli, the program has not only taught her how to make a pillow and a table runner, among other household items — it’s given her the confidence to make plans for her future.
“I wish I can learn a lot, and teach other people.”