LOWELL – They fled on foot from Myanmar’s oppressive military regime for nearby Thailand in 1997. Ten families — newborns, pregnant women, and the elderly — trudged for a week through mountains, often in the rain, hiding in the woods from army patrols, recalled Le Say, then 18.
Ali was also 18 when his life changed. After 14 years of forced labor in the Eritrean army, one night, when posted near Djibouti, he and two other soldiers ran for the border, he said. “It was a chance, and a just God helped us,” said Ali.
Say, 33, and Ali, 38, have made great strides: They now work for a local clothing manufacturer and are self-sufficient. They credit their success, in part, to The Stitching Studio, a two-year-old nonprofit program that teaches professional sewing skills to legal refugees and immigrants.
The Stitching Studio operates in the Lowell site of the International Institute of New England, a nearly 100-year-old agency that helps clients from 100 countries settle in the United States. More than 90 trainees who have finished the course are employed as sewers. Current students are learning production skills while completing small contract orders for designers and companies in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York.
The program is so busy it doesn’t advertise its services for fear of being overwhelmed. Program associates say their bounty is due to a dearth of US employees who can do line stitching, manual buttonholes, and prototypes.
In addition, there is increasing demand for the intricate beadwork done by hand that many refugees and immigrants learn in their native countries.
“Sewing is one of our dying industries,” said Carolyn Benedict-Drew, chief executive of the institute. The message “is very clear from the sewing industry, tailors, and design centers: The wait is a long one for qualified sewers.”
Melissa Otis Wellington, a Belmont product designer and program volunteer, adds: “In this day and age, we all run to China and India to produce at a cheaper cost. Now a young designer who isn’t big enough to finance production over there can come here.”
Two years ago, The Stitching Studio was just an idea nurtured by Fran Slutsky, a Providence product developer whose grandparents immigrated from Russia and Poland. Serendipity led her to a stranger: Seema Krish, owner of a South End textile company whose designs are printed and embroidered by hand in her native India. Their goals meshed and they took their concept to the International Institute of New England. The institute relies on an umbrella of funding — federal, state, local and private — and was able to accommodate a new vocational class with minimal red tape. Slutsky began fund-raising to finance the program and solicited donations of used sewing machines to increase the number on hand. The program depends on contributions of fabric for training.
The Stitching Studio began in January 2011 with eight Bhutanese women at the institute’s Boston office on Milk Street. But Boston graduates could not easily find sewing jobs, so the program relocated last summer to Lowell. Now, the alumni are finding work with area textile manufacturers.
“Our clients finish this program and can go into industry and make more than minimum wage,” Benedict-Drew said. “Our partners have been excellent and helpful. A couple of places are very keen on hiring our clients. The hardships endured to get here prove that refugees are excellent workers.”
The sewing program runs 2½ months, with six students meeting twice a week around their English-language classes.
Eleni Zohdi, a Lowell fashion designer who emigrated from Greece, teaches them. She recently assisted a class in assembling yoga bags for Savorii, a Swampscott company. Zhodi also helps clients prepare for job interviews.
The irony of The Stitching Studio’s success in Lowell is not lost on its organizers. Home to the nation’s largest textile mills in the 1800s and early 1900s, Lowell was once a path to job security for thousands of immigrants.
Today, in a downtown basement, small groups of immigrants are on a similar road. Slutsky says contractors come to The Stitching Studio because they want to support the program’s social values. “It’s bringing things to the grass roots by helping people in the US and making goods in the US,” she said. “It’s a double good.”
Say and Ali — who does not use his real name in order to protect his wife and six children still in Eritrea — said during a recent visit to the site that the program has immeasurably improved their lives.
They smile when talking about the satisfaction of a regular paycheck to support them and, in Say’s case, her two sons, ages 6 and 14. His job is a balm for Ali in the absence of his family. He is confounded, though, by the generosity of American strangers.
“I have seen a lot of countries on my way to the United States,” he said. “But I have never seen anything like the United States. They helped me without any questions when I was new here.”