Lee's Summit Journal

LS nonprofit Once We Were Refugees helps those in metro area learn skill

Amer Mbor works on a quilt that will be sent to either a refugee camp or a disaster zone.
Amer Mbor works on a quilt that will be sent to either a refugee camp or a disaster zone. Special to the Journal

Bobbins and thread might conjure up images of a middle school home economics class, but for the students of Once We Were Refugees, the whir of a sewing machine means so much more.

The Lee’s Summit-based non-profit — run by Ann Say and her husband, the Rev. William Say — offers a machine sewing class to refugees through the Della Lamb Community Center in Kansas City. Those who complete the nine-week class get to keep the machine they worked on, as well as a new iron, scissors, fabric and various supplies.

Although the Says have volunteered to help refugees in a variety of capacities for decades, Once We Were Refugees is a relatively new venture that they started about three years ago. Ann was talking with Abdul Bakar, director of refugee services at Della Lamb, about a sewing class she taught at her church.

Bakar asked if she’d do one for the refugees, and Say wasn’t sure if she could get enough machines. She made a few calls, and almost immediately found herself with 22 donated machines. Her friend Lyn Heilman, who runs Quilted Memories in Overland Park, donated 54 bolts of fabric to get her started.

“We hear so much that’s negative about how people feel about refugees, and people care about these refugees and want to welcome them,” Say said.

Now the program has about 100 graduates. Students have come from 17 countries, including South Sudan, Syria, Eritrea, Bhutan and Iraq.

Say teaches along with a group of volunteers. They go around and help students one on one. There’s no language requirement to be part of the class, although many of the students do take English classes.

“We teach everything in English and try to help them to learn the language. We’re trying to give them confidence,” Say said.

Quite a few of them have never used a sewing machine before when they start the class. The class and all its materials are free to students.

“We step back and let them try it and help them rip it out if they make a mistake,” Say said.

The curriculum includes five projects: a pillowcase, an apron, a skirt with an elastic waist, a reusable grocery bag and a quilt. Students keep all the projects except for the quilt, which is donated to Lutheran World Relief.

Student Amina Abdi, who is originally from Somalia and came to Kansas City three years ago, said that she likes the class. Her family has been impressed with her new sewing skills, she said.

After completing the class, students have the option of getting more advanced lessons, including how to use industrial sewing and quilting machines.

Say directs those who show both a talent for sewing and an interest in working in the industry to Restoration Apparel, a local company that employs many graduates of the program.

“We have some that don’t work. They just sew for their families, but it gets them together with other refugees, and they are at least getting out of the house and socializing,” Say said.

Some of the volunteers help refugees create resumes, while another services the donated machines and makes sure they’re in working order.

The classes have inspired graduates of the program to give back once they are able.

With some supplies from Say, a group of Bhutanese refugees started their own group to sew for charity, making lap blankets and chemo caps. A Somali man started a men’s group at his mosque that sewed flannel pajamas for people who couldn’t afford to buy them.

The end goal isn’t always sewing. One refugee learned to service the sewing machines and is now taking classes in aeronautics. Another showed great skill with the sewing machine but told Say what she really wanted was to become a nurse. Say connected her with a nursing home that would help her get a certified nursing assistant credential while working there.

“Our mission is to build vocational skills with refugees,” Say said.

A few students have made what Say calls a story quilt. These quilts detail a refugee’s journey from their home country, through refugee camps and other stops along the way to Kansas City.

“These are good, hardworking people that are not seeking a free handout,” Say said. “They’re wanting to take care of their families.”