By Anthony Cammalleri for

February 12, 2023

LYNN — The Afghan Women Workshop, pilot program at the Lynn-based New American Association of Massachusetts (NAAM) helps local Afghan refugees use their talents to find stable footing in a new culture.

On Sundays, dozens of Afghan women, approximately 11 of whom live in Lynn, gather on the third floor of the Clocktower Business Center to sew and embroider intricate textiles and articles of clothing. Down the hall, New American workers and volunteers watch the children in a daycare room equipped wall-to-wall with cribs, toys, and books.

When the U.S. military completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan the summer of 2021, approximately 76,000 Afghan refugees were evacuated to the United States.

In September, 2022, NAAM launched its Afghan Women’s Workshop in Newburyport. There, women from four Afghan families — some comprising up to 10 members — gathered on a weekly basis to socialize, learn English, and receive counseling from volunteer therapists.

“The initial idea was just to create this safe space for these women to come together to talk, to exchange, to meet. They’re not exposed to that kind of outside environment a lot. Traditionally, they stay home and their husbands are working. They were basically in their places with their children,” said NAAM Executive Director Natasha Soolkin.

Soolkin said that when coordinators noticed that many of the women shared a common talent — sewing and embroidery — the program shifted gears to teach the women entrepreneurial skills through sewing and selling their own textile products.

“They all have amazing skills — during their past lives, they all were making clothes for their families, for themselves. They never really thought of it as their skill, it was just part of their culture,” Soolkin said.

In November, NAAM, with help from The City of Lynn, the state’s Office of Refugees and Immigrants, and the Essex Community County Foundation, opened a branch of the Afghan Women’s Workshop in Lynn. While the children interact and socialize, the women sew together with an instructor to teach them quality control, marketing, and financial literacy skills.

“It’s a very new thing for them. They never thought, probably ever, that the skill they learned just to put clothes on their family members could generate income for them, or enable them to make some earnings,” Soolkin said. “And then the whole idea of marketing and how to market these things and how to find a way to sell them.”

Since November, Soolkin said that the women collectively made $9,000 selling their textiles at local markets and fairs.

Program Coordinator Lesley Hansard said that while the program acquaints these women with language and workplace skills, the practice of meeting outside the house regularly provides them a break from the stress of navigating a new country and culture.

“It’s a break between the stresses,” Hansard said. “It is therapeutic for them to come together, because it’s a patriarchal society that they come from. They’re mainly at home with their kids, they’ve got a lot of children, and they haven’t been used to just being out in the world. This is their first step.”

Hansard said that Zimman’s furniture store on Market Street, donates materials to the workshop on a regular basis. Interacting with local businesses and customers, she said, helps the women gain a sense of belonging in their community.

“The great thing about it is that this is really unifying them and bringing them into the community and making them feel like they are valuable members of the community. They’re formalizing an identity here through the small little micro business at home,” Hansard said.

NAAM workers also assist the women secure employment, and guide them through the citizenship process. The workshop will soon include a wellness program in which therapists help guide the women through the emotional hardships associated with their move.

Hansard said that in the few months she’s worked with the women, they’ve shown remarkable talent, strength, and growth. She said that they will often teach one another different sewing techniques, or different English phrases.

“I am so incredibly humbled and honored to work with these women. I am so proud of them. They just surprise me week after week after week with what they can do and I’ve seen the growth is immeasurable,” Hansard said. “These women are teaching each other so much like one who’s good at embroidery will teach the other one, and they all huddle around her. It’s like a domino effect — it’s just getting better and better and better.”

Lesley Hansard, program coordinator for The New American Center’s pilot program for Afghan women and children, admires embroidery work by one of her students.