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Sewing program providing Afghan women with skills for independence

By Fiona West | September 9, 2022
The women have made friendships as well as new skills and enjoy helping each other. Pictures by: Alanna Gow

An Afghan women’s social enterprise project combining English lessons with sewing is more about creating opportunities than products, with participants gaining skills and knowledge for greater social and economic independence. 

As part of the ‘English for Sewing’ project a group of 15 recently arrived Afghan women living in Western Sydney are learning how to make and sell fabric shopping bags from repurposed donated materials, while improving their English language skills. 

The pilot project, running every Friday for a 10-week term from a specially designed sewing room at Navitas Skilled Futures (NSF) Cabramatta, is a short course created within the Australian Government-funded Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP). It is a collaboration between NSF, Sydney Community Forum (SCF) and Settlement Services International (SSI). The intention is to roll this out to other parts of Sydney, depending on demand. 

Supporting the class (L-R): An SCF assistant; NSF Stakeholder Engagement Manager Basim Shamaon; NSF Bilingual Support Officer Frozan Joyan; SCF EO Asha Ramzan; NSF Trainer Songlin Hao; NSF Cabramatta Academic Team Leader Grace Nabhan.

SCF executive officer Asha Ramzan said their aim was to deliver outcomes that addressed the core objectives of social justice, sustainability and social inclusion.  

“We were really interested in what makes a difference in the hopes and dreams of women who migrate here who don’t have access to economic benefits,” Ms Ramazan said. “We see them as people who bring amazing talents and skills to the table … and we want to create enabling programs that provide genuine opportunities and celebrate their culture. 

“Sewing is not only creative and fun, it gives these women skills they could use to get work and generate an income – just look at them go! This is what community development looks like in action.”

In only their second week at Cabramatta, and the first time sewing or using electric machines, the women move around the tables with their choice of brightly coloured donated material, ribbons and embroidery, industriously working on their fully lined reusable fabric shopping bags, while developing their language skills. They work at an excitable pace, cutting, sewing and decorating something that is uniquely theirs, that reflects their personality, and of which they are so proud. 

Navitas Skilled Futures trainer Songlin Hao walks around the room and reminds the women their bag will need to be well made: “with neat seams, and most importantly, it needs to be strong and beautiful, just like you.” 

Ms Hao said the program includes some structured lessons, such as “how to use the sewing machine, explaining parts of the machine, showing how to thread, fill in the bobbin, and safety, as well as English words and terms related to sewing.” 

Participants also watch demonstrations and videos and have sewing assistants to support them throughout the term. Ms Hao said because language was the main obstacle to economic participation and social inclusion, the lessons were in English, however there was also bilingual support available, as needed. 

“Towards the end of the program they will have the opportunity to sell their products, either on online platforms or market days, so we will also be covering some basic numeracy, digital and customer service skills.”

The women, many of whom are mothers, are able to make use of free onsite AMEP childcare at Cabramatta while in the sewing program.  

Navitas Skilled Futures Stakeholder Engagement Manager, Basim Shamaon, said the emphasis on learning through both theory and practical skills provided education as well as genuine opportunity: “Courses like this tap into different needs in the community, where people can learn skills and language at the same time, and it actually opens so many doors for them in the future to help with all aspects of their settlement.”

A young woman with big dreams

ZUHAL MOSLEH, 25, from Regents Park. Arrived in Australia from Kabul in March 2022 with her mother, sister and brother.

Zuhal is a young woman with big dreams. Despite arriving in Australia in difficult circumstances only four months ago and having to navigate a completely new environment, language and systems, she is committed to improving her English, work and digital skills and one day running her own business. She said the English for Sewing project was the perfect start for her life in Australia.

“Since I finished school in Afghanistan I have only been working in the home. I was sewing at home – my mother taught me how – but not with an electric machine; it was a hand machine,” she said.

Zuhul Mosleh loves sewing and proudly shows off the bag she is working on today.

“I love sewing and I love making clothes and I want to learn more about sewing with an electric machine so I can make more clothes, bags and decorations for the home, like cushions and bed covers.

“In the future I want to have my own job working for myself and making things for others and selling them online. I first want to learn more English and the computer. I am also starting a [English for Driving] course this month, so I can learn to drive. In my country women can’t drive, women can’t do a lot of things. Coming to Australia is a little bit hard, everything is new to me, I make mistakes, but I find my way. There are a lot of differences between our country and Australia, but it is very good for us. I enjoy learning a lot and am very happy to get an education and to start driving and working in Australia.”

Planning for the future

ZARMINA DANISHYAR, a 23-year-old widow from Liverpool. Arrived in Australia from Kabul in July 2021. She lives with her brothers and two-year-old daughter.

Zarmina had a difficult arrival in Australia, dealing with the trauma of losing her husband and settling in a new country. She could not speak English and had not worked outside her home since finishing Year 12.

“I was sewing at home but not on a machine like this,” she said, with the aid of a translator. “I used to make clothes for myself and my daughter. I enjoyed it. I like sewing class a lot and now I hope I want to make clothes for other people and children, to sell.”

Zarmina Danishyar wants to develop her sewing skills so she can start her own business.

Zarmina is a Level 1 AMEP student at Navitas Skilled Futures Liverpool, attending classes four days a week, and sewing class on the fifth day. Her daughter is in the on-site AMEP childcare while she is in class.

“I am happy that a part of my study is to receive free childcare. When she first goes in the morning, she cries but then she is OK, and I am here,” Zarmina said. “I have two friends here from Afghanistan, but I am meeting people from other countries at college who speak Chinese and Arabic, so we all speak English. Here in sewing class we all speak the same language and I like to meet these women. But my main concern now is to learn to speak English because, for everything, you need it.

“I’m grateful to the Australian Government who help me a lot – food, clothes. It is very hard for me to come to a new country. Every single thing is new for me. But I feel happy to live with my brothers and really happy for sewing class. I look forward to learning more and later can start my own work.”

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