Written by Cecelia Gotham
Photos by RIT Photo Production Services
Hair and Makeup by Gallery Salon

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day… Teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.”

How many times have you heard that quote?… Well, that’s EXACTLY what Rochester Refugee Sewing & Repair is trying to do.

Wait, what is Rochester Refugee Sewing & Repair? In short, the objective of the organization is to empower refugees (primarily women from Nepal) to find economic freedom through worker-owned businesses in the Maplewood area of Rochester by means of flexible and fulfilling work.

Sounds like a good plan, but how? Rochester Refugee Sewing & Repair is formed out of Rochester Refugee Resettlement Services (RRRS) with a focus on targeting women who would not be able to find employment in the mainstream workforce in Western New York and helping them to become employable. Refugee women who become part of the organization are trained to sew with the hopes that they will build a foundation for their families. Resettlement can be a rather complex process for our newest neighbors, and among the struggles, finding work is at the top. Language barriers, transportation, and lack of flexibility tend to be primary reasons that refugees can’t find sustainable work, but this project strives to break down those barriers. Sewing is a skill that can be taught and is has been in high demand with labor shortage.

Rochester Refugee Sewing & Repair came together over the spring and summer of 2018. With the surge in popularity of the Rochester Public Market as the weather begins to turn in Western New York, bags that had been sewn by the women at Rochester Refugee Sewing & Repair throughout the winter (all made from upcycled fabric courtesy of SewGreen Rochester) began to sell. This started to generate income for the project while simultaneously providing a recycled resource to community members shopping at the market. Products are also available for purchase online, but on a limited basis.

The project remains relatively small at this point, but that’s not due to a lack of demand. The program has filled up simply by word-of-mouth. Mike Kelly, facilitator of Rochester Refugee Sewing & Repair, helps to ensure the organization continues to move in the direction that the female refugees, involved in the project want it to go. Kelly works alongside each woman as a supporter and advocate of their personal goals. When asked about his inspiration for working with Rochester Refugee Sewing & Repair, he stated, “I think that Rochester is a welcoming city and I want our business to be a part of that. I want to help do everything we can to welcome and support the folks who come to us to find a home.”

The operation currently runs on private donations alone, but is also seeking grant funding. Everything is housed within Rochester Refugee Resettlement Services in the Maplewood neighborhood of the city of Rochester. The operation includes fifteen sewing machines, one serger, cutting equipment, storage, two computers, notions, and fabric which is capable of producing the professional soft-goods that get sewn for the Rochester Public Market in addition to scrunchies, but this is not enough. With the mission of the program being to provide economic freedom to these mothers and granmothers, creating worker-owned businesses in the Maplewood neighborhood is the ultimate goal.

Projects such as this display the economic and social enrichment that refugee resettlement can bring to our communities. The structure of the project provides a safe, warm, and fun social space for people of all walks of life to gather and learn while presenting diverse refugee identities through the products sold. Native Rochestarians are also able to benefit from this initiative by learning to sew through gallery-based workshops. Rochester Refugee Sewing & Repair just launched a line of scrunchies for sale for $12 each on their website – click here to purchase! Please note that color selections and variants will not be available until after the full launch at the beginning of April.

Rochester Refugee Sewing & Repair’s first gallery show in the local community is coming June 2019 to RIT’s Downtown Art Space. Stay tuned! Want to know more about this organization and see how you can help promote their great work?

Here’s their website and Facebook to learn even more.