CEC’s sewing classes provide place for people to stitch together friendships and extra income
Sewing classes have long been one of the most popular classes at the Community Education Center (CEC), a local vocational skills center connected to the Levinsky Garden Library in Tel Aviv. But now 20 advanced sewing students from Eritrea and Sudan will have the opportunity to further their education and make strides towards supplemental income after UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, donated 20 sewing machines this past December.
The CEC sewing project has taught over 1,000 people to sew over the past decade, including asylum seekers, foreign workers, and a few Israelis. The organization also teaches computer skills and Hebrew, English, French, and Arabic. UNHCR has supported the CEC through grants to the Levinsky Garden Library since 2013, and recently provided scholarships for more than 70 of the approximately 500 students.
“We believe in activism through education,” explained Ofir Sivan, the coordinator of the CEC for the Levinsky Garden. The sewing classes have been especially popular because they are both fun and useful, Sivan said. “The students love to learn together and create together, they have such a good time,” said Sivan. But the practical skills have also helped many students take on side work to supplement their income. Some students who work at hotels will take home sheets and blankets that need mending and earn extra cash. Others fix their kids and neighbors’ clothes or taught their neighbors to sew.
“We believe in activism through education.”
UNHCR donated 20 Dorina sewing machines, which went to asylum seeker students with the greatest need. There are currently 60 students learning sewing this semester. Many are women, but there are also a few male students.
“The idea was to provide asylum seekers with opportunities for sustaining themselves, with opportunities for self-employment,” said Olga Saet, UNHCR Program Officer in Tel Aviv. “We decided to invest in sewing machines because after they completed these courses, they can start their own side businesses if they have their own sewing machines.” Supporting livelihoods and training for income generation is one of the major strategies for helping asylum seekers adapt and integrate to life in Israel, said Saet.
Students at the CEC collect their new personal sewing machines on December 31, 2021. (Courtesy CEC)
“I’m excited to make clothes for my children and also other children,” said Fatima (last name withheld), a Sudanese asylum seeker and mother of three who received one of the machines. Fatima, who has lived in Israel since 2009, has previously studied Hebrew at the CEC. She is about to start her third semester of sewing classes, the most advanced sewing course at the CEC.
“My favorite thing that I made was a colorful skirt,” said Fatima. “It was really beautiful. Now I’m working on pants, but I haven’t finished them yet.” Fatima said having her own sewing machine at home will allow her to practice what she has learned in the course and make a lot more items, rather than only having time to practice on the sewing machines at the CEC. “I am excited to make a lot of beautiful things,” she said.
The sewing machines at the CEC are large, industrial machines, while the Dorina machines allow for much finer and delicate projects that can be more useful for small-scale sewing, according to Sivan. The sewing machines will also allow women who aren’t able to get into the Central Bus Station where the classes take place tth ability to continue learning and possibly make extra income from home, especially during times when they cannot work. “Some of the women are in advanced stages of pregnancy and can’t get to the CEC,” said Sivan. “This really helps women who are living far away. Also, we had an extra-long break because of covid so they can continue working from home.”
Learning a skill such as sewing can be exceptionally useful for asylum seekers who are single mothers and looking for extra income on flexible hours, so they can be at home with their kids. During the pandemic the importance of home-based supplemental income took on new importance. It can also be a useful skill if they move within Israel or are resettled outside of the country, allowing them to make an income while getting started in a new community.
Although some of the teachers are Israelis, most of the sewing instructors are former CEC students themselves. The sewing and design program was started by a Filipino foreign worker over a decade ago. Fatima said one of the thing she loves about the course is learning from people from the community who just a few years ago were at the same level as she is now.
“I don’t know how to make a lot of things yet, but I’m able to fix things at home,” said Fatima. “I’m going to learn a lot, and one day I’m going to open my own business making specialty clothes for women and children. I’m looking forward to working for myself, it will be much better.”