Claudine Tuyisenge didn’t know how to handle a needle, let alone a sewing machine when
she participated last month in a sewing workshop offered through Bridge Refugee Services’ Knoxville office.

“Now I can make my own skirt,” says Claudine, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who resettled in Knoxville with Bridge’s help.

Claudine and 22 refugee women from the Congo and the Republic of Burundi learned how to thread a needle, use a sewing machine and make a pin cushion, an elastic-waisted skirt and a circle skirt with a zipper over two, five-hour classes held Sept. 14-15 at the Center for English at West Lonsdale Baptist Church. The program took place through a partnership with the Sew It, Sell It vocational skill-building program, a grant from the East Tennessee Foundation and more than $1000 worth of donated sewing machines and supplies from community supporters.

Refugee women from the DR Congo and Burundi learn basic sewing skills during a two-day workshop offered as part of Bridge’s Women’s Cultural Support Group.

The program is offered as part of Bridge’s Women’s Cultural Support Group. Rehema Mukeshimana beamed as she held up the skirt she made during the workshop, which she said she joined to learn a skill that will hopefully help her earn some money in the future.

“I love how they teach us how to do something and I do it, and when I finish it and I see what I’ve made—that’s the best thing ever,” she says.

Bridge Case Manager Summer Awad says the program also brought together a population of women who often find themselves isolated after resettlement due to limited employment opportunities while they are learning English and adjusting to their new home.

“We just started resettling Congolese refugees in 2014-2015 and now they are the primary population that we serve,” she says. “It’s important they come together to build their own community structures. This program is a really good first step towards that.”

Summer says Bridge approached Dr. Enkeshi El-Amin, a UT sociology lecturer who founded Sew It, Sell It, about launching the program after hearing about the youth sewing camp she offered this summer.

Sew It, Sell It teaches the basics of sewing, along with business planning, marketing and other lessons in entrepreneurship so participants learn how to turn the products they make into something they can later sell.

“It’s a great skill to have, a great hobby; but it’s also a great way to earn a living and make an income for yourself,” says Enkeshi, who grew up in Guyana surrounded by a family of entrepreneurs, including a grandmother who made her living as a seamstress. “I want them to know they have options.”