‘The strongest women I’ve ever known’ — moving the needle for women at risk

During a decade living in a refugee camp, Liliane Lemani offered sewing lessons to others displaced by violence in the Congo.

“I learned from my father,” she said. It was mostly hand-stitching and pumping a machine powered by her feet.

Lemani, 35, first used electric sewing machines two months ago through a unique Kansas City program that helps at-risk women become professional seamstresses.

On Saturday, the not-for-profit Rightfully Sewn graduated its pilot class of six seamstresses. Four will start their careers at local garment companies beginning Monday.

“These will actually be the first full-time jobs for all of them,” said Rightfully Sewn founder Jennifer Lapka.

Their teacher, Pamela Lucas, called the class “the United Nations of sewing.”

Four of the graduates are asylum seekers; two are American-born who have struggled with homelessness.

All were referred to the seamstress training program by Rightfully Sewn’s extensive network of social service partners, which include refugee resettlement agencies.

More than 60 people — families and friends of the graduates and supporters of the program — attended the Saturday ceremonies in the courtyard of Jewish Vocational Services.

“I’m so excited to start working,” said Marzia Rasouli, who left Afghanistan with her husband last year.

Sewing courses at the Paseo Academy were rigorous, requiring 100 percent attendance, long hours of homework and switching students’ grasp of the metric system to eighths-of-an-inch measurements. Instructor Lucas, who studied textiles at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, said a YouTube site helped students at home with the English terms of sewing equipment.

At their final class on Friday, representatives of the Women’s Foundation of Kansas City instructed the group on how to negotiate salary. “The first step is not to just accept the first offer you receive,” said the foundation president Wendy Doyle.

Beginning in May the seamstresses took lessons on workplace etiquette, financial planning and tips for avoiding injury and maintaining good posture at their machines.

“These are the strongest women I’ve ever known,” Lapka said. “The amount of dedication, inquisitiveness, camaraderie and work ethic they have is of epic proportions.”

Elevé Dancewear will put three of the graduates to work immediately, at $10 an hour and above.

“It’s hard to find good seamstresses,” said owner Lisa Choules. “We have the room.”

Arrow Fabricare is hiring Lemani to work on leather goods.

On Saturday she received her certificate with her husband and eight children, including two orphaned relatives, beside her. Several wore brightly colored garments she had stitched the week before the occasion.

“In class you would’ve never known that she hadn’t used modern sewing machines. Her seams were perfectly straight,” Lucas said. “Liliane’s a natural.”

Rick Montgomery: 816-234-4410, @rmontgomery_r