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Refugee Children's Summer Camp Leads to Community Learning

Adventist Muslim Friendship Association helps immigrant and refugee women in the Chattanooga, Tennessee, area learn new sewing skills, earn income.

In this video story, learn about Peace of Thread Chattanooga, a sewing group for refugee women, started by Adventist Muslim Friendship Association.

Every summer, Adventist Muslim Friendship Association (AMFA), a North American Division-based initiative located near Chattanooga, Tennessee, provides a summer school for children of refugee families in the area. According to AMFA, the goal is to help integrate refugee children into the United States in a godly way.

In 2016, around the same time that AMFA’s summer classes for children started, leaders in AMFA began to discuss activity options for the mothers that brought their children to the summer programs. That first summer included English and Geography classes, hiking, and some crocheting classes for the mothers. The following summer, after observing another organization, Peace of Thread Atlanta, that taught women to sew bags and purses, AMFA expanded the summer program to include sewing classes for the women.

“When we sent out word, we expected maybe half a dozen women to come to the classes,” said Nema Johnson, who helped spearhead the sewing program. “By the end of the first week of sewing, I had more ladies interested in learning how to sew than the number of borrowed sewing machines we had.”

AMFA photo 3

Purses are carefully arranged on a dining room table just before a purse party begins. Image by Pieter Damsteegt

After those four weeks of summer classes attended by more than a dozen women, there was much interest in continuing the sewing classes. The group has met every other week since.

The full process from start to finish involves church members and students from the Chattanooga area cutting donated fabric, then, at the actual bi-weekly sewing class, the women work with the pre-cut cloth to craft beautiful purses and other various bags. Purse parties are held on the weekends around the suburbs of Chattanooga. The purse parties are where the refugee women can make money for their families by selling the purses they have crafted.

The sewing class, held every other week, typically starts with discussion and sharing, followed by an opening prayer. Then the women work to learn a new purse design. They either finish up the project during that class or take it home to work on. They continue to work on their projects until the next meeting time.

“It takes a bit of a learning curve for the women to make high quality purses. We’re not just talking about putting material together and sewing to get money,” said Darleen Handal, local area coordinator for AMFA. “We’re doing a service. And we’re creating a piece of art.”

AMFA women's group meet together

The AMFA "Peace of Thread Chattanooga" sewing class meet together before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the group to stop meeting in person. Image by Pieter Damsteegt

COVID-19 Impact

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused businesses and churches to shut their doors across the state, the women adapted the way they work and socialize as a community. “Initially the whole thing got put on hold [while we were] trying to figure out what to do,” said Johnson, “But then we started to meet every week [virtually].”

Shortly after the lockdown began in March, Johnson designed some masks that could be sewn by the women. The first goal of this next endeavor was to ensure that the women had masks for their families. A disinfecting process was put in place. After they run the donated fabric and materials though a sterilization process. Johnson takes those fabric batches to the women’s homes and leaves them on the porch. The women then disinfect the containers and bags before using the cloth for sewing projects.

“Right now, they’re selling the masks on their own, because we can’t have purse parties,” said Handal. “[Also,] it’s a challenge because we don’t have people cutting fabric right now.”

AMFA purse tag

Each purse created through the AMFA sewing class tells the story of the woman who made it. Image by Pieter Damsteegt

The group is still making the specialty bags and purses, though the process has been slowed due to the additional steps and safety precautions put in place. “For the most part we are moving forward, so praise the Lord,” said Johnson. “All the women that were meeting before are still meeting [virtually], and we still have a waiting list of other refugee women wanting to join.”

While AMFA isn’t going to host a summer school for the kids this year, they will be trying something new. Starting this week, they will be bringing kits to the children’s families with activities based around Creation, learning about one day of Creation each week.

“Peace of Thread Chattanooga,” inspired by Peace of Thread Atlanta, hopes to be able to meet in person again soon, but, in the meantime, both they and AMFA will continue to build community virtually, and by supporting families in Chattanooga in socially-distanced ways.