COLUMBIA — Rwandan refugee Caritas Habimana came up with an idea to help other women who are refugees and need help adjusting to their new home. SewYouKnow started right after Memorial Day and has become a place for the women to gather, improve their English skills and sew.
"It relaxes me," Habimana said of sewing. "I love it."
To see the dresses the women of SewYouKnow have reworked for promwear and to learn more about the sewing group, call Fran Lambeth, a volunteer and organizer, at 445-3595.
The group meets twice a week at Community United Methodist Church, 3301 W. Broadway. They have made over a computer lab in the church for their workspace — painting the walls and making curtains in a range of colors and patterns for windows that look into another part of the building.
Shortly after the group began meeting, Columbia Housing Authority asked the women to make curtains for the four public housing groups located in various parts of Columbia, which the authority oversees.
Phil Steinhaus, CEO of Columbia Housing Authority, said people had been using plastic bags and tin foil to cover their windows and the housing authority wanted to improve the outward appearance of the homes.
“We have a lot of residents who have very little money, but we decided we wanted them to have curtains,” Steinhaus said.
The housing authority then committed $1,000 worth of materials to SewYouKnow; it paid the women, who live in public housing, $3 to $3.50 per curtain, depending on size.
“The curtains seem to be very well made, and they’re very colorful, and they just did an excellent job," Steinhaus said. "I really admire the church for all the work they did and setting up the sewing room as well. That was pretty cool.”
Fran Lambeth, a volunteer and organizer for SewYouKnow, said the women have improved their sewing skills since that project.
“Many of our seamstresses are able to function pretty independently now,” Lambeth said.
The initial group of refugees included women from Africa, but in the past few months it has grown and now includes women from Burma and Thailand. They make items from donated material.
“We’re hoping that we can expand it even more,” Lambeth said.
Eight women were at SewYouKnow in mid-March; most spoke little to no English. Habimana said that through the process of sewing, the women are learning English word by word.
“I wanted them to do something they can use in their future,” Habimana said.
Lambeth, who helps teach the women to sew, said she is helping the refugees with their English skills by repeating words, such as “needle,” until they understand. She sees improvements already.
“All of them seem more confident in trying to communicate in English," Lambeth said. "It feels like their self-esteem has gone up and their language skills are beginning to develop.”
Steinhaus said the public housing staff has noticed the progress among the refugee women who live in public housing as well.
“A number of them have actually improved their English skills,” he said. “It’s worked out pretty good. It’s actually a really nice partnership.”
Rebecca Gordon, a SewYouKnow volunteer who has been sewing for more than 40 years, sees benefits beyond the sense of integration the refugees receive. She said she hopes the women in the group have a “spark” and are motivated to make pieces for themselves as well as the community.
“We’re trying to get people to move forward and become entrepreneurs," Gordon said. "To keep them enthused is important.”
Recently, the group received four or five bags full of vintage dresses, which Lambeth said are being made available for promwear. This is a fundraiser for the group, and donations are requested.
“We’re hoping we’ll have kids from (Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools) who are interested in vintage dresses,” Lambeth said.
Lambeth's involvement with SewYouKnow began when she learned Habimana was looking for a place for the women to sew. Lambeth asked Sunday school class members at Community United Methodist if they would be willing to share their space with the group, and SewYouKnow took off from there.
Her goals are to help the women develop a skill and have them work on their conversational English, she said.
And, for Habimana and the other women, the creation of the group has meant a new hobby.
“Now I bought my own sewing machine at home," she said. "I love it.”
That day, Habimana had come to the group wearing a colorfully patterned dress and matching headscarf, both of which she made herself. This was something she couldn’t have done at the project’s beginning.
“I didn’t even know how to put thread in the machine.”