This group of Montreal newcomers is building connections and giving back — one stitch at a time
Group made masks during pandemic, now making gifts for the holiday season
Red, white and green fabrics are strewn about a small room in Montreal's St. James United Church on Ste-Catherine Street, where four Muslim women are seated behind whirring machines, nimbly sewing Christmas gifts and decorations for donation.
"It's very nice because it's cheerful to give something to another people," said Dina Basiony, a volunteer instructor of the women who are known as the "sewing bees."
"They feel it's made with love," Basiony said.
The donations are just one of the ways this sewing circle at the Montreal City Mission (MCM) is giving back to the community, all the while helping its members learn more about their new home city.
One of those members is Sonia Jbara, who came to Canada from Syria 12 years ago. She initially joined the group in hopes of learning new stitching techniques and finding creative ways to reuse materials — something she's long done when altering or patching up her children's clothes.
"I [learned] about how to use machines, how to cut, how to [sew] and especially how to recycle fabric," she said, holding a half-sewn stuffed Santa Claus.
But after a few weekly gatherings, Jbara found the crafting group afforded her much more.
"It's like my second family here," she said.
The sewing circle, which began in 2019, is part of the MCM's Women Weaving their Dreams project which aims to help newcomer women build language skills, strengthen their self-confidence and foster friendships as well as a sense of belonging.
"They are [getting] closer to each other and we are aiming to integrate with the community, not only to teach them sewing," said Basiony, a refugee herself, who began teaching the new group of women in January 2020.
"We make friendships, we make relations, we stay together and sometimes we solve a problem for each other."
Dina Khidr, who moved to Canada from Egypt 14 years ago, says besides building on the crafting skills her mother taught her as a child, her favourite part about the sewing circle has been the ties she's made with the other women.
"We [are a] very beautiful group, very beautiful friends, not only here in the place but also in [a] group online," she said.
"We help each other not only in this project but in general life."
Stitching masks for front-line workers
A few months after forming those bonds, however, things started to unravel. The COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the group was abruptly kept apart from each other during a period of time marked by uncertainty, thousands of deaths and a shortage of critical personal protective equipment.
That's when Arwa Nofal, the outreach co-ordinator at MCM, says the women asked for something "very unusual."
"They asked to take the machines home," she said. Not to re-up their sewing lessons via Zoom or fill their spare time with personal projects, but to make garments to keep those working on the front lines safe.
"They wanted to contribute to the society in this time of crisis," said Nofal.
So the women began sewing masks for those working in close contact with the city's homeless population.
For Khidr, lending a hand to her community was a moral obligation.
"I need to help because at this time, there were no masks," she said.
Khidr chuckled when recounting how her fabric deliveries and mask drop-offs were conducted: via pulley system from her balcony.
She said Nofal would tie the fabric to one end of a rope, and she'd tie her masks to the other.
"It was very funny at the time," Khidr said.
In the end, the women delivered around 2,000 masks to staff across the city's shelters.
'Putting pieces together to get something bigger'
Nofal said that sense of giving back helped the group feel like a part of the wider community.
"Our goal was to support them and instead of that, they supported us and they gave [to] us."
In 2021, the women pitched the idea of making Christmas presents to be donated back to the mission's staff, donors and the wider community, which they eagerly took up again this holiday season.
"Imagine that, a group of Muslim people and they are wearing hijab, they come to the church … for Christmas gifts and Christmas stockings," said Nofal.
Basiony said this coming together of strangers to do good speaks to the essence of the craft itself.
"Sewing is a philosophy, not only an act," she said. "It's putting pieces together to get something bigger."
Based on reporting by Chloë Ranaldi