Mena is a 23 year old mother of four who recently fled her home with her family in Afghanistan to resettle in Charlottesville. I was introduced to her by my friend Cathy, who had been paired with the family by International Neighbors (IN). Their family has been in this country only a few short months, having arrived here in Charlottesville thanks to the assistance of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Unfamiliar to our country, our culture, our language, Mena and her husband are also unaccustomed to running their own household, as they lived in a home with their extended family in their native land. While the IRC got them out of their native country alive, IN works to ensure they thrive in their new home. As a volunteer in the Family Friends program, Cathy was paired with the family to help in that adjustment.
Mena had been sewing items for her family by hand, due to the lack of a sewing machine. Cathy asked if I could help track down a machine, preferably a ‘non-electric’ treadle one for her to use. I came across several sewing machines – both posted as freebies by the curb as well as ones donated directly to me in response to posts I put out on various message boards and on social media – but none that were non-electric. I test drove a few of them, as I wanted to be sure the machine she would be receiving was in good repair and easy to use. While the basic function of sewing machines is the same whether they are electric or not, there is a vast difference when you start adding on the bells and whistles that tend to come on even the most basic of electrified machines. I knew that I would be teaching her to use the machine and with the language barrier – she speaks no English, I speak no Pashto and there was no guarantee of an interpreter to be there– ease of use was essential. Thankfully, sewing machines come with owner’s manuals that are heavy on illustrations. Mena might not be able to read or write in any language (because, Afghanistan), but I made sure to leave an owner’s manual with her, because I knew it would still come in handy thanks to the illustrations.
There was, in fact, no interpreter on hand when I delivered the machine to Mena. The oldest of her four children, has attended a few months of first grade here and knows some English, but not enough to translate the technical aspects of how to use a sewing machine. His younger sisters were fascinated by the machine, but were also not able to translate. Still, I felt I communicated what was necessary – a lot of pointing and gesturing took place – and I walked away feeling that while the machine I left Mena with was a little more than she was looking for right now, it was one that would last her a long time. She knows the basics of sewing, she just had to learn how to use a new machine. The machine I left her with was a Janome. It’s a Japanese brand and most of the functions on the machine itself were labeled with images, not words. It seemed a good fit and was also pretty darn dreamy to sew on.
I ran into Cathy the other day who told me she had finally found a treadle machine for Mena, but she had already taken so well to the machine I had obtained for her that she rejected the treadle in favor for the electric machine. Cathy said she was handing it off to another family that was in need. As for the other machines I collected, they were donated to other organizations that can utilize them, with the exception of a 1930’s Kenmore. Still in its original case, with its original owner’s manual, accessories and sewing machine oil, I promised the donor I would not sell the machine or use it to profit from in any way. It needs a little fine tuning, so I’m going to make sure it gets the love it needs before rehoming it.
I had run into Cathy when I was with a friend and Cathy proceed to tell my friend how impressed she was that despite the language barrier, I could teach Mena how to use this machine. I don’t think that was due to any skill of mine. There are various other ways we humans can communicate without words that can cross barriers – love, kindness and even sewing. It’s just a matter of finding the commonality.