Refuge for Nations: Empowering Immigrant Women Through Sewing
By: Grace Lees
Cynthia Khan, founder of Refuge for Nations, welcomed me warmly into a classroom at Wayne State Community College. Around us, groups of women worked busily sewing colorful swaths of cloth and speaking to each other in Urdu, Spanish, Arabic, and English. This is the usual scene at a Refuge for Nations sewing class: immigrant women from many different countries gather, often with their children in tow, to learn about artisan fashion and textiles.
Refuge for Nations is an ethical clothing brand that was started in 2013. Beyond producing high-quality clothing, the brand has sewing centers meant to empower refugee and immigrant women by teaching them artisanal trades. Khan explained that many of the women who come to the sewing centers cannot work in the traditional workforce because of cultural and linguistic barriers. Refuge for Nations provides English classes, maternal wellness and nutrition education, low-income housing, pro bono aid, and, of course, sewing training. Most importantly, the brand is run by immigrant women for immigrant women. This means that the leadership and staff of Refuge for Nations can relate to the struggles of the women in their classes, and can make the transition to a new country more welcoming.
Cynthia Khan is one of those women and as she showed me around the sewing class she told me about her own experience as an immigrant to the United States. She was married at a young age in Pakistan where arranged marriages are customary. She and her new husband moved to Saudi Arabia and eventually to Canada where Khan volunteered to teach immigrant women the language. A striking pattern emerged when she surveyed the specific challenges that her students faced when coming to the U.S. or Canada from countries with more stringent gender roles which prevented women from working outside of the home, choosing their husband, or learning to drive. Along with a generally different culture, many of them left their countries fleeing war, domestic violence, or simply to find better financial opportunity. However, when settled in the U.S. without anything familiar and often leaving behind fragmented families oceans away, the U.S. can be difficult to navigate and many of the women needed additional sources of support. Cynthia began to design a special industrial sewing class to meet the women’s need to become professional sewers in partnership with Wayne Community College after she had already opened Friendship Centers with her non-profit social enterprise.
As Khan showed me around the sewing class, she introduced me to the students, often translating their stories into English. One woman, Grace, came to the United States with her husband and kids in 2000 from Eritrea. Grace said that back in her country her husband was a college professor, but when he came to the US he had to start driving a taxi to make money and re-apply to school in order to get the credentials to teach in the US. Grace was a nurse back in her country and also had to work cleaning houses for long hours before she could go back to school and become a nurse here in the US. Now in 2018, her husband is a professor at a local college and Grace has completed her masters in nursing, and is now a nurse practitioner. She has four kids, one of whom is in medical school at Ohio State University. “When the kids saw how much we suffer and grow they know that if you have hands in the U.S. you have a lot of opportunity,” Grace told me with pride.
Grace drives four of her relatives to the Refuge for Nations sewing classes every week. She said that she had seen her friends working in their homes and taking care of their children, but these women were isolated from their new country because they had no way to work or learn English. To Grace, the sewing classes are a great way to bring together immigrant women from her country. Since she knows English and also how to drive, she works to teach her friends the same. She said, “Women have to help each other, we cannot wait for someone, we must help each other.”
All of the students praised about Refuge for Nations for the celebration of their heritage, the sewing skills that they learned, and the community they gained. Sitara, a woman from Pakistan, explained to me that all of their sewing resources were recycled to create this upcycled fashion. She said she loved that she could create sustainable fashion that had roots in her own culture. The pride in the room was palpable as the women showed me the new pleating techniques they were learning. One woman from Syria told me that she takes a picture in front of the Wayne State College sign before every single class to celebrate and commemorate her education.
Cynthia Khan and the other women of Refuge for Nations have worked hard to create events for their brand which now has a sewing center in Michigan, and hope to expand it to other states to help refugee and immigrant women nationwide-- she believes that “Societies thrive by lifting up the weak, poor, and the helpless!” Most recently they have teamed up with Acts of Fashion and Bronze Elegance Runway Fashion at the University of Michigan to use some of their pieces in the “Everything But Snow” show this past November. Additionally, Khan explained to me that they partner with student designers or local brands and use the students to mass produce their designs in sewing classes. Refuge for Nations is always looking for partnerships with art students who are studying fashion or design to help in classes, work on their website, or help spread the brand.They are also looking for partnerships with local businesses, companies, and individuals to meet their sewing needs locally so they do not have to outsource it.
Khan has a serious entrepreneurial knack, and is always looking to expand. “Women come to me so often wanting to join the class more and more. We need more room!” As I learned the stories of the many women at the sewing class, I could understand why. The work of this brand is truly grass roots with students joining just from word of mouth, volunteers teaching the sewing classes, and leaders like Cynthia pushing to expand at every opportunity. I urge anyone with a passion for activism or fashion to go to https://refugefornations.com/ and learn more about the brand. Also keep an eye out at local craft fairs and fashion shows for Cynthia, a warm and talkative Pakistani woman, with a band of artisan women of all ages and backgrounds. Know that as she is selling you beaded dresses and gorgeous scarfs, that behind the work are the stories of hundreds of immigrant and refugee women learning to sew while making a home for themselves in the United States.