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Women United Around the World—and around sewing

To her students, Adele Ngoy is the embodiment of the American dream.

“Adele gives us hope,” says sewing student Linda Muhimpunda, an immigrant from Burundi. “She began with sewing here, and she has her own business and is doing very well. She is encouragement for us.”

Sewing student Beffe Carmen Cerele, a 43-year-old immigrant from the Ivory Coast, working with volunteer instructor Adele Ngoy, founder of Women United Around the World. Photo by Amy Paradysz

It’s been 18 years since Ngoy immigrated from Congo to Maine with little more than sewing and fashion design skills and three small children. Today, she’s the owner of Antoine’s Tailor Shop in Portland and a locally beloved fashion designer. She saw all three of her now-adult children off to college, then, a few months ago, remarried. And, giving back, Ngoy established the nonprofit Women United Around the World, which supports free sewing classes for immigrant women.

“I want to invest my time in them,” Ngoy says. “I want this group of women to become independent.”

A dozen women from around the world have graduated from her sewing classes and are making a living as professional stitchers, working for bridal shops, L.L. Bean,  small manufacturers or going into business for themselves.

Five years ago, Sonia Irambona fled political unrest in Burundi. Now she spends Tuesday and Thursday mornings at the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, where Ngoy teaches WUAW sewing classes in a dedicated classroom with six industrial machines and a piecing table. Irambona had already taught herself to knit using YouTube and had thought of herself more as a knitter.

“Adele gives us hope. She began with sewing here, and she has her own business and is doing very well. She is encouragement for us.”

“But the first class led me to the second and the third,” she says, cutting a pattern for a girl’s summer jumper. “And I’ve loved learning to sew.”

Classes are taught in English, and when Ngoy encounters a puzzled look she throws in a bit of French, Swahili or Lingala. Once the technical concept is clear, Ngoy switches back to the English vocabulary that will be needed in the workplace.

“She pushes us to not be afraid to speak English,” says Muhimpunda, whose native language is French. “Back in my country, I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology. But I wanted to learn to sew. When you come here, everything is new. One thing that stayed the same is that I like sewing. And when you meet other people, that’s a good thing.”

Muhimpunda wants to become a tailor after completing the WUAW training. But with two toddlers at home and a change in her husband’s work schedule, she’s been missing half the classes. And she’s not the only student held back by not being able to afford child care.

That, Ngoy says, is why these women need the training even more—so that they can work from home.

“There’s a lot of need for sewing skills in town, and I can connect them myself,” Ngoy says. “Because I want to make them proficient stitchers, I take a long time: nine months. But after three months, they can work.”

Sewing student Sonia Irambona, a 34-year-old immigrant from Burundi. Photo by Amy Paradysz

WUAW, on behalf of Ngoy, is pursuing options for providing an industrial sewing machine and a micro grant to each graduate. She is also taking students to craft fairs and planting seeds of entrepreneurialism.

“There’s a culture in Maine of doing craft stuff,” Ngoy says, gesturing to a pattern for a girl’s sundress. “Grandmothers like to buy handmade dresses like these for their granddaughters.”

As Ngoy does with her own fashion design line, she encourages her sewing students to use designs, fabrics and prints from their home countries, melding their native culture and local fashion. “Then,” she says, “they’ve made something unique and different.”

The annual WUAW Fashion Show and Gala is both a showcase of handmade, multicultural fashion and a fundraiser to support these sewing classes.

“Every year we have a new goal with fundraising,” says WUAW Vice President Lisa DiGiovanni, before listing several. “This year we want to expand sewing classes with a second teacher, who Adele would train. We want to continue working with local businesses to provide jobs for women who complete the classes. And we want to have micro grants for women who finish the program to help them start their own businesses.”

Other needs on the WUAW wish list include childcare and transportation, as some of the women walk miles and could attend more regularly if they had a bus pass.

The Women United Around the World Fashion Show & Gala
Saturday, March 3, 6–9 p.m.
Italian Heritage Center, Portland
For tickets, if the event hasn’t sold out yet: womenunitedaroundtheworld.org

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough who is inspired by these women because she speaks only one language and still has her mother hem her pants.

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