This is a story about sewing machines and a woman who repairs and gives them to Charlottesville’s refugees. That might sound like a paltry gift. But to a refugee who sold her clothes in her home country to help pay for her family’s journey to escape violence, institutionalized misogyny, and possibly death, a sewing machine is a powerful tool. It is a source of personal pride, an instrument of creativity and independence, and a means to stitch back together a war-torn life.
The sewing machine lady is Deborah Jackson. On a sunny afternoon in late November, she sits on the living room couch in her Belmont home, cradling a squirming baby, Taraawat. Next to them is the child’s mother, Najeeba Popal. Popal, 32, arrived in the United States five years ago, on a special immigrant visa, or SIV, for helping the U.S. military. She and her daughter have the same round face, dark hair, and chestnut-colored eyes—but now Popal’s are clouded with tears.
She choked up while telling the story of saying goodbye to her family in Herat, her hometown in western Afghanistan. Popal had lived almost her whole life there, graduating from the local university and working for four years before meeting her future husband and moving to Kabul, where they had their first child. But nearly all of her friends and family still live in Herat. It’s where her mother, a seamstress, taught her to sew. But Popal, fearing her work for the U.S. would be discovered, had no choice but to leave—on a plane the next morning, she told her family.
“I was thinking about my child,” she says, dabbing away tears. “She was newborn. I thought, What if something happens to me—if she were not to have a mom? That would make her life horrible.”
Today, that child and her sister, the one Popal was pregnant with when the family fled Afghanistan, both attend Clark Elementary School. “They love it,” Popal says. Her husband has a full-time job, and Popal takes care of Taraawat and works at home. Like her mom, she is a seamstress.
It’s difficult to convey the monumental contrast between life in Kabul, where terrorist bombings dismembered people and destroyed families, and Charlottesville, where Popal and her family are not only intact but have a growing network of friends. Popal and Jackson are particularly close. They met three years ago through International Neighbors, a local nonprofit that supports refugees. When Jackson discovered Popal knew how to sew, she gave her a sewing machine that had been donated to IN.
“My husband and I delivered two machines yesterday,” Jackson says, handing off Taraawat to Popal. “I always drop them off with bobbins, extra needles, fabric, and things like zippers and buttons.”
Jackson gave her first machine to a refugee three years ago, when another IN volunteer told Jackson that a grandmother had asked for one. The nonprofit had one, but it was broken, so Jackson—who had learned to sew and maintain sewing machines as an 11-year-old—fixed and delivered it. “She was so happy,” Jackson says. “I’ll never forget the look on her face!”
Since then, Jackson has handed out 48 machines and has 15 more at her home, awaiting repair. In the early days of the program, Jackson used nextdoor.com to request donations of machines and fabric. The fabric flooded in. Machines were left on her porch. And now, what started as a one-off has become a meaningful service, enabling refugee women (and a couple of men, notably, a tailor from Congo) to provide clothing and household goods (curtains, furniture cushions, sheets, and more) to their families and other refugees. Some people, like Popal and the tailor, sew as a source of income, finding clientele by word of mouth and through IN, which plans to give sewing lessons at its Fifeville headquarters in January.
Jackson considers the success of her efforts a blessing, but she can’t keep up with the demand, and she hopes others will step up to help. It wouldn’t require a big time commitment, and Jackson can attest to how gratifying it is to help refugees and their families. The things that Popal and others sew are staples of life. But the network that has formed and the friendships made are just as important. “People don’t have family when they come here,” she says. “They feel sad and lonely.”
In time, those feelings diminish, if only a stitch at a time.
Editor’s note: The print version of this story, published on December 18, notes that Jackson had distributed 38 machines to date. After the newspaper had gone to press, she recounted—and came up with 48.