When Minnesotan Leslie Mallery signed up to teach a sewing class at the Somali American Women Action Center, she had no idea the effect the class would have on her (or her students). 

By Jennifer Chen
February 24, 2020
Minnesota is home to more than 52,000 people of Somali heritage, a community that grew and thrived after an influx to the area in the early 1990s during Somalia's civil war. As established as the population is, Minnesotan Leslie Mallery says, "I realized I was surrounded by Somali people, but I knew nothing about them." When she saw a volunteer opportunity on Nextdoor to teach sewing at the Somali American Women Action Center (SAWAC) in Minneapolis, the sewing enthusiast raised her hand (and pincushion). Here's how the class stitched together two cultures—and bridged a language barrier.  Read more.
Jeff Minton

Minnesota is home to more than 52,000 people of Somali heritage, a community that grew and thrived after an influx to the area in the early 1990s during Somalia's civil war. As established as the population is, Minnesotan Leslie Mallery says, "I realized I was surrounded by Somali people, but I knew nothing about them." When she saw a volunteer opportunity on Nextdoor to teach sewing at the Somali American Women Action Center (SAWAC) in Minneapolis, the sewing enthusiast raised her hand (and pincushion).

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Fartun Ismail, the founder of SAWAC, was thrilled to have her. "Leslie is so talented," she says, "but also our community felt unwelcome in this political climate, and having Leslie teach showed there are still good neighbors who embrace us."

Leslie faced some challenges at first: Beyond the limited facilities—15 students shared five machines—the language barrier was steep. Most of her students aren't fluent in English, and Leslie doesn't speak Somali. "But I was determined to stick with it," she says. She relies on finding a student to interpret for her, and when the women's school-age daughters come to class, they help translate.

Today Leslie holds weekly sessions and works with Fartun to oversee eight instructors, who teach about 50 women five days a week. When the group outgrew their space, Leslie got the Mount Olivet Lutheran Church to provide a classroom, and she has put out a call on Nextdoor for sewing machines, supplies, and fabric store gift cards.

Leslie and Fartun hope the classes help recent immigrants find ways to make money for their families. A few of Leslie's students have gotten jobs at the nearby MyPillow factory, while others simply benefit from the chance to practice English. Suleyka Kediye started class with zero sewing skills and now designs tote bags. "Leslie's open heart helps us learn," she says. "She's an awesome teacher."

For her part, Leslie is forever changed: "The most rewarding thing is seeing women who've lived through such hardship be proud of something they didn't think they could do," she says.

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