A stitch in time helps immigrants

Project Regina’s sewing program gives women a trade and, for some, opens a new world

On a Tuesday morning, crowded by sewing machines in a packed room on the ground floor of Uptown’s Lehman Center, Project Regina student Fardowsa Nur, 27, stitched the waist on a light blue pair of pants for her alterations assignment.

Project Regina is a non-profit school for refugees, based in the Lowry Hill East (Wedge) neighborhood, specializing in teaching the sewing trade, while helping students assimilate to American life and work culture.

While inspecting her stitching alignment, Nur, a native of Somalia, discussed her life in the United States after leaving Africa two and a half years ago. She said when she came to St. Paul to meet up with her family, she heard of Project Regina after joining a program at a Catholic church in connection with the College of Saint Catherine.

Nur said she likes living in St. Paul, and although she has a part-time job at a cleaning service, she aspires[?] to a sewing career. Her tale is not uncommon among the other Project Regina students.

Audrey Bernard, 40, is a student from Jamaica who has been in the U.S. for 15 years and lives in the Wedge. She recently quit her job as a nursing assistant — which she loved — because of complications from heart surgery. She began attending the sewing school in search of a new career.

Bernard, who has never sewn before, said learning to sew is difficult. She said she has learned to enjoy sewing but hates doing tedious alterations. Although Bernard said it’s sometimes difficult to talk with other students — they come from many countries, with no common native language — she said the school has given her a chance to start a new career. "I really love it here," she said of the school. "They’ve made it possible for me to gain back my independence."

Project Regina The school was started in 1976 at Regina High School in Minneapolis by a nun and a community-education teacher, set up as a free class for low-income women.

Executive director Sarah Olson said that because so many Hmong women joined, school officials began teaching English, and programming diverted from there.

Ten years ago, Project Regina moved into the Lehman Center, 1006 W. Lake St. The Minneapolis Board of Education donated space and an English teacher. The sewing school runs from September to May, same as the Minneapolis schools. It’s at its capacity of 22 students, mostly women in their early 20s to 40s. Men can be students, but Olson said male interest has been minimal.

The classes are free, except for a $35 supply fee, and run four days a week, five hours a day — one hour for English and math used in sewing, and four hours of actual sewing on a student’s own machine.

Marion McNurlen, a program social worker, said she helps students find sewing jobs after graduation.

Nur said she wants to find a job as a seamstress, but she also wants to use her sewing skills in her family life. Although she doesn’t have any children yet, she said, "I’d like to sew for my kids sometime — it’s fun."

Bernard said once she completes her courses, she’ll start her own business from home, and has already begun a product line. "I’m working on candles and making tote bags," she said. " I’ve already made soap."

Olson said she is usually able to place every student who wants work in a job. She said students work at companies around the metro area, such as uniform shops, makers of dance costumes or flags and banners, or at Marshall Field’s alteration warehouse.

Typically, Olson said students make $8 to $8.50 an hour; however, alterations jobs pay into the low teens per hour. "If it’s technically more difficult, it pays better," she said.

Global reach The students come from all over the globe, including Laos, China, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, Gambia, the Ivory Coast and Jamaica. McNurlen said that most students have been in the United States at least one year. She said some have been granted political asylum, while other students came to the U.S. as refugees. "It’s a little like the United Nations," she said.

McNurlen said because all students are from other countries, they learn English through sewing terminology, helping each other develop conversational English. "That’s the only language in common here," she said.

Olson said Project Regina has tailored some of its curriculum to give students the opportunity to talk about their culture, especially about work, which can differ from American work culture

In many Third World countries, Olson said, when it rains, people don’t go to work or don’t show up at appointments; it’s just understood that they won’t show up because of transportation issues, which is unacceptable by American work standards.

Nur said language was the hardest adjustment here. "It’s difficult when you come to this country and you don’t speak English — it’s very hard," she said.

After working at an Italian restaurant in Kenya, Nur said she had already had experience learning from people who speak a different language. "They’d talk in their language and you’d have to learn it," she said.

Aside from English, Olson said other parts of the curriculum focus on sewing techniques used on garments, so students can adapt to various sewing jobs. A mannequin named "Daisy" helps students learn body measurements. The students make two copies of every assignment, one to keep and one that Project Regina sells to help fund the program.

Funding McNurlen said most of the project’s $200,000 annual budget comes from private foundation grants. The budget is used mostly for supplies and teacher salaries. Olson said future funding is uncertain, because of the recent economic downturn. "All nonprofits are having a hard time," she said.

Said McNurlen, "We might have to charge a fee next year because funds are so tight."

Olson said that although any fee is uncertain, it would be kept between $100 to $200. She said additional money comes from alterations the school does year-round. Pants alterations cost $6 to $8, or $6 to $13 on a dress, shirt or jacket. "Twenty-five percent of our budget comes from contract work and alterations," Olson said.

For extra money, the school sells a line of camisoles for breast cancer survivors, and sells garments and bags at local sales such as the Minneapolis Farmers’ Market.

In addition to the traditional sewing program, the school will add youth summer classes for deaf and hard-of-hearing refugees and also a Somali sewing class to meet community demand, Olson said.

Because it is a non-profit, Olson said Project Regina relies heavily on volunteers for staffing, fabric and other sewing supplies. To get involved with Project Regina, call 827-2670 or e-mail to [email protected]