Using sewing skills to help refugees

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, June 12th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Today, we’ll meet a grandmother with a heart for refugees. She uses her sewing skills to help them economically, and also to mend fractured lives.

WORLD Radio’s Myrna Brown has our story.

AUDIO: Sound of trains

MYRNA BROWN, REPORTER: Every day a train whistles down the tracks, alongside East Ponce DeLeon Avenue, the main drag in Clarkston, Georgia.  

DENISE SMITH: Actually, it’s the most diverse people group per square mile than anywhere in our country. There are sixty-plus nations here.

That’s Denise Smith. Seven years ago she began welcoming women from those nations to a converted garage in Clarkston. She’d been a missionary in Lebanon and knew some basic Arabic.

SMITH: I serve Iraqis, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burmese and Nepal, and the Rohingya, and Syria. And it’s my hope and my dream to be an advocate for her so that she has a voice, and her first voice is being employed.

AUDIO: Sound of sewing machine

In her tiny, 700-square-foot training space, Denise puts refugee women to work, using a skill she learned as a girl in rural Ohio.

SMITH: Of course, I did home economics. I didn’t get a very good grade on it. I actually got a “C” because my boyfriend was across the hall and I had my eye more on the door than on the stitch. And it really wasn’t my thing.

AUDIO: Sound of sewing machine

Today sewing is her passion and the tools of her trade are everywhere.

AUDIO: Sound of tool box door openingOF TOOL BOX DOOR OPENING

SMITH: This is a tool box that we bought, and it’s filled with these beautiful pieces of broken jewelry that people have given to us.

A 12-foot cutting board sits in the middle of the workspace. It’s surrounded by dozens of cages filled with fabric.

SMITH: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 cages and then we have 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 drawers in each of those cages.

And hanging on the other side of the wall are rows of belts.

SMITH: We have leather and cloth and tie belts.  Then we have some that have chain and black leather weaved through them.

Denise uses it all to teach refugee women how to design and sew one-of-a-kind hand bags.   

AUDIO: Sound of Najah entering

Our little tour is interrupted when Najah arrives wearing glasses and a hijab.

AUDIO: Sound of Najah entering, kiss

The two greet each other with a traditional Middle Eastern kiss. Najah is from Nineveh. She came to the United States with her husband, a former Iraqi army general who worked with the U.S. military.

SMITH: And how many eyeglass cases?  I have three eyeglasses case.

SMITH: We call her Lauren Bacall.  She has that rough, gruff, sexy kind of deep voice.

Denise first taught Najah English as a 2nd language. Then she taught her the craft of making handbags. Now Najah is the teacher.

NAJAH: Hey how are you? Good Morning, Nee!

Nee is a refugee mother of two, from Burma in Southeast Asia. Her sewing machine is in a small room with a window.

NAJAH: You have to separate the pocket into two pockets. One big and another small. How many inches? Three fingers. Uh huh. Three fingers.

Each bag takes at least two hours to finish, and the women get 50 percent of the profit. Wallets sell for 16 dollars. A clutch runs about 25. And a five-piece tote, which takes longer to sew, can cost as much as $400 dollars.  

AUDIO OF GPS: In 11 miles turn left off of Pea Ridge Road

Denise often takes her bags on the road to sell—a sort of pop-up artisan festival. I followed her to Lake Oconee, Georgia, about 75 miles southeast of Clarkston.

SMITH: Good Morning ladies, good morning

In the annex of the Lake Country Baptist Church, about two dozen church ladies gather around to look at the assortment of handbags.  

SMITH: Boy, women just go right for the purses don’t they? We are purse people.  I love the hum. Are you familiar with the card inside the bag?

Inside the pocket of each purse, a brown card tells the story of the woman who created the bag.  

SMITH: That stays with the bag so you can continue to pray for her, follow her and find her bags online. Oh that’s nice. Isn’t this gorgeous? Describe it for us? A light green, a flap that has purple polka dots. Light tan leather, just very pretty.

Judy Varajon bought two bags and also added two new names to her prayer list.

VARAJON: Najee, from Afghanistan. She’s a new bride in America. And this one is made by Lita. She’s from Babylon. Babylon, Iraq. Her husband first fled Iraq to escape political persecution and Lita came to the U.S. when they married. How about that?

BURROWS: Most of the time when you hear refugees, you think that they come over on a boat and that they just sneak their way in. I had no idea that our country was working with their country through her husband and were able to get over here with their husbands

AUDIO: Sound of women shopping for purses at church

Denise says bad information is her biggest obstacle. The pop-up festivals in different locations allow her to tell the stories of the women she helps.

AUDIO: Sound of sewing

SMITH: They all have a culture of a political stand and a religious stand, but I try not to focus there. My heart is to focus on the peace that Jesus has given me. And when He shows up in their visions and they begin to ask questions, my only prayer is that I am honored to be next to them to share who Jesus is to me.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Myrna Brown, reporting from Clarkston, Georgia.

(Photo/Myrna Brown)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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