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English for Sewing collaboration empowers Afghan women

By Fiona West | September 21, 2023

A collaborative project that combines English classes with learning how to sew is helping a group of Afghan women in Campbelltown gain life and work skills, along with friendships, independence and confidence.

English for Sewing, a module of the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP)*, has been running one day a week for the past eight weeks in Campbelltown CBD, where Navitas Skilled Futures delivers the English, Sydney Community Forum provides the sewing instruction and materials, CORE Community Services lends the sewing machines and the Afghan Fajar Association provides the facility.

The 10 participants are all Afghan women, many of whom are stay-at-home mothers with low-level English, so the program has been the perfect way for them to integrate into the wider community in a comfortable supportive space.

Navitas trainer Vlasta Gunning helps participants with the English component of the English for Sewing course.

The women have made bags and aprons, and in the final weeks some students were even challenging themselves with dresses and T-shirts.

Navitas Skilled Futures trainer Vlasta Gunning spends the first two hours of each class on the English component. She created weekly worksheets that the women could take home with them to practise, focusing on related vocabulary, such as sewing tools and instructions. The women have also undertaken theoretical assessments testing their knowledge about words and numbers, relating to things like sewing equipment, measurements and money.

“I really like the class and feel privileged to have been able to be part of these women’s life for a short time,” Vlasta said.

“I’ve seen a huge improvement, especially in confidence. Even the women that were very shy at the start now get here even before me and when they see me they say, ‘Hello teacher, how are you?’.

Vlasta Gunning (L) and Nadia with some of the bags made by the participants. Nadia is wearing the apron she made.

“They practise what they’ve learned and, just by coming here, they feel a little bit more positive and confident about being out in the community.”

Sydney Community Forum worker Denise Nihei helps participants with the sewing elements of the course.

Nadia arrived in Australia in June this year. Her husband was killed by the Taliban and, frightened about her future, she fled to Turkey where her cousin – living in Australia – helped her successfully apply for a humanitarian visa.

While she worked at the airport in Afghanistan as a consultant officer checking tickets, she dreamt of working in child care in Australia. But first she needs to learn English. She said all week she looked forward to attending English for Sewing, which is delivered on Fridays.

“I like coming here,” Nadia said through an interpreter.

“It helps me with my English and I like to get the sewing.

“I had never sewn before and now I am sewing on a machine and it is good. I made a bag and an apron.”

“I’ve also got friends here. When we have a break we are eating together. Some women make food to share together, like baking cakes.

“The teachers are very good. They make it easy.”

Nadia said she would love to continue sewing at home but she does not own a sewing machine.

Team effort: (L-R) Razza Hussainizada, Vlasta Gunning and Denise Nihei at the Campbelltown class.

Afghan Fajar Association (AFAIC) Project Officer Razza Hussainizada said he hoped the program could continue, but was dependent on securing the machines.

The AFAIC is a not-for-profit organisation that, since 2012, has been running a range of programs for the betterment of refugees and migrants settling in Campbelltown. He said, for the AFAIC, the sewing classes were about female empowerment.

“We engage women to this class, they come together, make friendships and learn skills and hopefully in the future they can make an income from that,” Razza said.

“By coming here and networking and sharing their stories with each other, and making friendships, it gets them more out of their homes … and by exposing themselves to this class, to each other, in the community, they get more confidence. Also we help them here however we can, like some who need to work, we introduce them to the job network. It is very good for them.”

The women have made bags, aprons and some have made a dress and T-shirt. All have improved their English and grown in confidence.

Denise Nihei, a community worker with Sydney Community Forum, said her organisation’s connection to the project was providing the donated fabrics and materials and teaching the women to sew so they could create clothes and items for themselves or their families, or have the opportunity to make an income from the sewing skills if that was something they wanted to do.

Denise said she was so impressed by how well the women picked up the sewing skills.

“They are mums, some have more than three children and they still find the energy and drive to come here every week and they are so motivated. They are always really excited,” she said.

“This morning I was telling two of them they look like professional seamstresses! From the beginning of the course to now you really see the difference with their confidence growing, and they are having fun.

“This is a time for them to not worry about family, not worry about the issues they have at home, just come and enjoy themselves and share this moment with the other women.”

Navitas Skilled Futures has previously run English for Sewing classes at its Cabramatta College for two terms in 2022, and at Liverpool College for three terms in 2023. It will run a module at NSF Bankstown next term.

*The Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) is funded by the Australian Government Department of Home Affairs.

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