A mess of unique patterns, warm calicos and subtle plaids are tossed around as the group of women sort through heaps of fabric and piles of thread. Others arrive and greet one another before taking their pick from a row of machines along the wall.
In one corner, Zakiya sits engulfed in a mound of flowers and polka dots. The 70-year-old Afghani woman nimbly patches scrap pieces of cloth together in the form of a massive blanket as she demonstrates her quilting skills for others to see.
“It’s called crazy-quilting,” Shana Bombrys, a volunteer at Refugee Services, a program of Catholic Social Services of Lansing/St. Vincent Home, Inc., said. “She’s shown all of the women how to do it. Now they’re all trying it.”
[sew1] Like Zakiya, refugee women from all over the world have come together to fashion their own unique blanket of culture through a sewing circle held twice a week in the basement of Refugee Services. Despite their differences, the women gather to not only practice their sewing skills but to share and help piece together the collage of experiences they have encountered in adapting to American culture.
Although the refugees have come from an assortment of backgrounds, sewing serves as the thread that has mended their cultures together. Zakiya learned to sew in Afghanistan when she was a child and said she enjoyed coming to the sewing circle to practice her skills with other women, even though she was unable to verbally communicate with all of them.
“Language makes it hard, but we still help each other sew,” she said. “We especially communicate in terms of sewing.”
The sewing circle was started in 2000 by Bombrys, a former Refugee Service worker who intended to find a way for refugee women from Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Liberia and Iraq to interact in a friendly, neutral environment. Beginning with attendance of about five women, the sewing circle now draws in 25 to 30 women a week.
After spending an hour crafting blankets, aprons and doll clothes, the group, consisting of Afghani and Somalian women, put their machines away and gather for group discussion. Comparing and contrasting customs and traditions, the women are able to share anything from cooking techniques, to plans for their first Ramadan in the United States, to stories of war, through the help of translators.
Director of Mental Health for Catholic Social Services of Lansing Dikke Hansen facilitates group discussion after sewing. She sees the sewing circle as an excellent opportunity to help bind together the women struggling with similar stress and personal problems.
“We sew for an hour, then talk for an hour,” Hansen said. “They reminisce about being back home. They talk about their struggles and their joys.”
“They get here and don’t have extended family, so they have to make it up,” Bombrys added. “That’s not something that’s feasible to do yourself.”
[sew2] Sixty-year-old Zia from Afghanistan said that before the Taliban, women in her country were able to socialize at work. However, after the Taliban, she said women were isolated separately within their homes and unable to communicate. During the sewing circle, both Zia and Zakiya were able to express a sense of comfort they have found living in America.
“It’s great because it’s the first time we have experienced peace,” Zia said. “In our country, we were always afraid of rockets and seeing people being stabbed in the streets.”
While refugee women have visited Hansen individually in dealing with personal stress and problems adapting to their new surroundings, she said a lot of the women prefer to express their feelings in a group setting because they are better able to relate to others who have shared their experiences.
“In their society, they would go to the elderly of the village or community,” she said, “and I am obviously not an elder for them. After spending time with them here, I’ve been able to gain their trust.”
Hasna, a 21-year-old refugee from Somalia, could relate to the sense of ease the Afghani women felt as she described satisfaction with her new surroundings.
“I like leaving my house and seeing police walking by,” Hasna said. “It’s peaceful, it makes me feel safe here.”
Bombrys, who is working toward a master’s degree in social work, expressed initial apprehension when group discussions between the women began. She feared the women would be weary of expressing their feelings.
“These women just don’t think about themselves,” Bombrys said. “They worry about their children and never about themselves. I was surprised, I didn’t think they would open up, but they did.”
Bombrys said many of the women were “shut-ins,” and needed to get out of the house for physical health reasons since many of them became sick.
“To sit at home isn’t healthy,” Zia said. “It’s good to come out and talk to people and maybe pick up a few things in English.”
“We all look different,” she added, “but when it all comes together, it’s something very special.”
For more information about the sewing circle, contact Ikram Adawe at Refugee Services, a program of Catholic Social Services of Lansing/St. Vincent Home, Inc. at (517) 482-2252 Monday thru Friday, 8 a.m. to noon and 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.