New jobs for newcomers: How a Winnipeg sewing group helps women find employment and community
One Nation Exchange teaches women to sew, while providing child care and a space to make friends
Etagegni Abegazi can't seem to stop smiling, surrounded by a group of women in the basement of Calvary Temple in downtown Winnipeg and framing art on a recent Wednesday afternoon.
The group has gone from strangers to friends thanks to sewing and sharing culture.
Abegazi, who goes by "Mimi" to her friends, is from Ethiopia. She came to Canada from Sudan in February 2014, with her young family. They moved to Winnipeg, where she didn't know anyone and no had no job opportunities.
"When I came to here, I don't know how to sew," said Abegazi, gesturing to the group of women around her. "I came here for friends and for my kids to play."
Abegazi joined One Nation Exchange soon after moving to Winnipeg. It's a social enterprise that brings together Indigenous and newcomer moms to learn how to sew, while providing child care.
The women sew the group's emblem onto products that are sold in stores across Winnipeg, including at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
The money from their products goes right back to One Nation Exchange, and helps create more jobs for the women.
The group originally started in 2014, a year when Winnipeg received the highest number of refugees per capita in Canada.
One Nation Exchange director Lorelle Perry created a six-week drop-in space for both Indigenous and newcomer moms in the North End. The women discussed their cultures, learned phrases from each other's languages, created art and had space for their children to play together.
Perry said she was "intentional about building bridges between the newcomers and their neighbours."
"Sometimes, they live next door to each other but don't necessarily get each other," she said.
The art the women created in that program was then combined to create what is now One Nation Exchange's emblem.
"It's representing our desire for unity and just a strong shared future as one nation," said Perry.
Today, One Nation Exchange holds two sewing sessions a week in Winnipeg.
Investing in training
Earlier this month, One Nation Exchange got a boost from Local Investment Toward Employment (LITE).
The Winnipeg group, which supports social enterprises, ordered 200 prints of One Nation Exchange's emblem. The prints are part of LITE's new holiday gift box, which includes different products from several non-profits in the city.
"This order of 200 frames through LITE is the equivalent of a small grant for our program," said Perry.
"LITE's support has made it easier for our organization to invest in the training of women for employment, and we're giving an honorarium to the women who are assembling the frames."
Abegazi says One Nation Exchange helped her go from being a newcomer to being newly employed. The mom of three became a sewing instructor in the group, started taking college courses a few years ago, and was just hired as a health care aide in Winnipeg.
"In health care aide working, I do it from my heart," said Abegazi. "I'll be helping all people, so I'll be happy when I'm with them. That's my dream."