Sewing program helps Canadian newcomers stitch together new lives

Sewing program helps Canadian newcomers stitch together new lives

With each pass of the needle, Suha Kalbouneh is stitching together a new life.

Kalbouneh knows a thing or two about making something from nothing. The 40-year-old is an experienced seamstress who used to teach home economics at a high school in Damascus.

But after the war broke out in Syria, she became one of the country's 4 million refugees. Forced to flee the country she called home, she started over just over a year ago in Canada, a place she'd never seen before.

Now, Kalbouneh is one of 20 women learning to become an independent business owner through an eight-week social enterprise program called Darzee, organized in part by the nonprofit organization Mes Amis Canada with participants from not just Syria but Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan and beyond.

'First steps'

"This is like the first steps of a baby," Kalbouneh told CBC Toronto.  "A new baby tries to walk but he falls down. But still he likes to walk, so we are like this."

Julie Mahfouz Rezvani is one of the organizers of the program.

She says that while some of the participants are new to sewing, many others learned the craft from their mothers and grandmothers.

"It's something that's a bit of a family tradition," she said.

But while harnessing that skill to launch an independent businesses seemed like a natural choice, for many of the participants, it was the craft of entrepreneurship — which proved a challenge.

"So we looked at that and decided we not only wanted to train them on the sewing and makes them better at it, but almost more importantly show them how to be independent business owners," said Mahfouz Rezvani.

'Helping them to help themselves'

The skills taught in the program include basic sewing and pattern making, marketing and how to maintain a customer base.

"It's absolutely critical, especially with the sentiment, with the anti-immigrant sentiment that they've been hearing about more of, that we help them," Mahfouz Rezvani said.

"And helping them is not giving them anything for free. It's helping them to help themselves so they can succeed."

The products themselves include scarves, pillows, baby bibs and more — all bearing the theme of Canada's 150th birthday.

"It's a huge year for Canada," Mahfouz Rezvani said. "We should be celebrating in Canada a number of things, one of which is our diversity and what better way to showcase that?"

'Like one family'

"These are made in Canada products made by the newest Canadians."

For her part, Kalbouneh says she'd eventually like to sell her creations online.

But beyond the business skills she's learning, Kalbouneh says she's gained something else through the program too.

"We're all like one family," she said. "Laughing, talking, learning many things. Exactly like one family."

And that, she says, is the most valuable part.

"When you change your country, you find many difficulties because everything is different," she said. "But if you find love from people, you forget the difficulty that you find in your life."

"This is now my country...Thanks for all the people and all the love here."