Afghan women left everything behind — except their sewing skills

IMAGE: CNS photo/Ashleigh Buyers, Catholic Herald

By Mary Stachyra Lopez

Va. (CNS) — Before Mahnaz left Afghanistan with her husband and four sons, she
carefully packed beautiful black, red and white curtains in the few suitcases
she could bring along to her new life in a country 7,000 miles away.

would be something familiar from her native land once she was surrounded by
strangers whose language she didn’t speak. But to her dismay, the curtains
didn’t fit the windows of her new home in Fredericksburg when she arrived a few
months ago.

curtains were special to me because I thought I might not be able to find them
here,” Mahnaz said, speaking in Dari through an interpreter.

Afghanistan, she could have easily made new curtains on one of the three sewing
machines she owned — one a gift from her mother, another from her
mother-in-law, and the third a wedding present. So when Mahnaz heard that the
Catholic Charities Office of Migration and Refugee Services in the Diocese of
Arlington had distributed donated sewing machines to 14 women and one man last
year, she hoped for one of her own.

the end of April, Mahnaz and nine other women studying English at the
Fredericksburg office of Catholic Charities received sewing machines. Now they
can sew for themselves and sew items to sell at craft fairs.

of the women, whose names have been changed for security reasons, are in the
United States on special immigrant visas for the families of Afghan
interpreters whose lives were in danger because they served the U.S. embassy or

Schwerin, a parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Triangle and a
volunteer with the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, came up with the idea in July
2015. Parishioners at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in
Fredericksburg and St. Francis of Assisi donated many of the machines after
Schwerin placed ads in church bulletins.

been a sewer since I was 8 or 9,” Schwerin told the Arlington Catholic Herald,
the diocesan newspaper. “My mom taught me, and I know a lot of these ladies
come with a lot of creative talent.”

hoped the machines would help the women, most of whom have never worked outside
the home, supplement their income and build their self-esteem.

really believe in these women and I want them to feel good about the beautiful
things they make,” Schwerin said.

Mahnaz, the majority of women are used to sewing by hand, not on a machine.
After one basic lesson, the first group taught themselves enough to sew clothes
— without patterns. The lone man in the group found a job as a tailor, while
the women formed a group, Love 2 Sew, and began selling makeup bags, purses,
duvet covers and quilts at farmer’s markets.

knew these women had these skills, but we had no idea to what extent,” said
Laurel Collins, associate director of the Fredericksburg office.

second group of women gathered April 27 for a basic lesson on the machines. It
was a challenging process because some of the machines did not have manuals.
Mahnaz, working with an antique black Singer machine, wound thread around a
hook and then looped it around downward into a smaller loop. Fariba, a mother
of seven, worked on a more modern machine that made a gentle whirring noise.

some time spent turning knobs and pushing buttons, she took a break. She said
she was planning to make “a thousand things ‘ for myself and kids as well.”
She’ll start out with pillow and mattress covers.

for Mahnaz, “I need to make curtains for my home.”

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Lopez is social media coordinator for the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper
of the Diocese of Arlington

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