Pawku Ju locks a practice sheet into her sewing machine, takes a deep breath and timidly steps on the pedal.
It’s her second day at the We Made This class, a refugee resettlement program based in metro Aurora. She examines the crooked stitches, laughed and said it was “really bad.”
Pawku is one of many refugee women who have entered the program, which has worked with a variety of refugees since 2009. In the program, students learn how to use sewing machines, speak and write English, master personal finance and other cultural integration skills. The African Community Center of Denver started the program as an initiative when a few women wanted to learn how to sew for their families. The program garnered non-profit status in 2011.
Today, they have a full-fledged apparel line that returns 55 percent of the proceeds back to the hands that sewed it. The program also opened its first brick-and-mortar store June 25 in Aurora’s Mango House on East Colfax.
There are three different classes, varying in skill and application: The beginner, where students learn the basics of sewing, receive a certificate and a free sewing machine. Beyond that, students can move on to intermediate and artisan classes. The intermediate and artisan students can sell for the program fashion line and be referred to sewing jobs. Every level provides flexibility, with some women only coming in for a few hours or working from home.
Pawku is following in the footsteps of her mother, Eh Gay Ju, who is a working artisan for We Made This. They both share the same dream to return to the Karen State in Myanmar — formerly known as Burma — and teach their friends and family the art of sewing.
Eh Gay, fled her home country with her five children and husband in 1997 to a refugee camp in Thailand. Pawku was just 4-years-old. Eh Gay said she felt like prey, running like an animal, according to Pawku’s translation of her mother’s comments.
The Karen continue to fight for autonomy from Myanmar, a place of regular cultural and ethnic conflict since 1949. It’s often referred to as “the longest civil war in history” according to Karen news and BBC.
The Ju family remained at a refugee camp for 10 years until the United Nations Refugee Agency helped them relocate to Texas, and ultimately Colorado. They reconnected with an old friend from Myanmar, Debora Di, who is currently in the We Made This intermediate class.
Though Pawku spent most of her childhood in a refugee camp that she described as crowded, unhygienic and highly policed. She said adjusting to life in the U.S. was also difficult.
“It is hard to fit in the culture. It’s hard to go to school and not understand anything,” Pawku said. Public school was challenging, but she found other Burmese teenagers to befriend. Pawku graduated from Columbine High School in 2013. She is excited to continue her education at We Made This with her mother by her side.
“She wants to learn more and because it’s education,” Pawku said, translating for Eh Gay. “She said that in refugee camps, she just thought ‘Education is only for my kids, but when I came here, it’s not just my kids, it’s for me, too.”
Most of the women in the program are from Myanmar, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia, according to Hannah McMillen, We Made This Program Lead. The two sewing instructors are Tin Tin Pyone, a refugee from Myanmar, and Sweeta Afrooz, who is from Afghanistan. Both women were once students. Today, they have a full-time career helping women with similar experiences and crafting products for the fashion line.
Tin Tin first learned to sew by hand as a teenager from her mother. She didn’t pick up a needle for several years until she went to We Made This. For her, the program’s benefits go beyond learning how to sew on a machine. It’s about building a community and an entry-point into a new life in America.
“I’m so happy for the ladies,” Tin Tin said. We cannot speak English. We cannot read or write, but I can do work.”
The line changes often to keep up with trends but usually includes onesies, small bags for coins and toiletries, and purses. The Mango House store has allowed We Made This to feature and sell items from outside of their usual designs. Additions include African wax print shirts and pants by Feleg Tesfazghi, a man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He is one of the current artisans who utilizes the Mango House location. Although the We Made This mission is to help refugee women, they still accept men into the program.
For a woman who has been in the country past the five year mark, tuition for a We Made This class is $1,000. Private donors can choose to sponsor a student and pay for her education and sewing materials.
“There’s an ethical good to purchasing something that was made here because it directly impacts the life of a woman who’s rebuilding the life of her family and herself in Denver,” Hannah said. “And they take a lot of pride in the things that they make and feel a lot of joy in seeing them utilized.”