No fabric left behind Photos and multimedia by bÁrbara D'oro

Sara Oruko quietly sits in the corner of a busy sewing shop crafting a pair of pants from recycled fabric. Oruko, 42, is a student in the Sewing for Jobs program, an initiative by EcoEquitable — a Canadian charity that focuses on integrating immigrants into the Ottawa community by teaching them how to produce sustainable clothing.

“We welcome mainly women, mainly newcomers, who have an interest in sewing,” says Chelsea Hillier, the program coordinator. Coming from different parts of the world, the women who joined Sewing for Jobs all gather to acquire new skills and expand their social circle. But the sewing course is, ultimately, an opportunity for them to find a job.

Oruko came to Canada three years ago from Uganda, leaving behind a career as a hairdresser. To be able to do the same job in Ontario, she would need to be certified, but she says she cannot afford the cost of more than $5,000. “It is a new system here,” she says. “In Africa, we do the hair for Africans, so here I need to go to the course and learn how to do the white hair and to do other things.”

Sewing for Jobs was launched in 2011 and trained an average of 40 students per year ever since. During the courses, students learn about hand stitching, how to use the sewing machine, the fundamentals of garment sewing, and at the end of the course, they also have the option of learning how to use an industrial machine.

Alphonsine Ondea, who came to Canada from the Republic of Congo is learning how to make her first dress. “Instead of throwing it away, you give life to the fabric,” says Ondea, 38. She decides to go with a pink fabric, picked out from the countless options provided by donors, many of whom are seamstresses.

All the students in the classroom know how expensive it is to buy fabric, and they value the fact that they can keep all the clothes they make during the course. “The donated fabric is really important for us. When I make something, I feel like I can do anything. It is amazing,” says Bernadette Jordan, 42, who came to Canada from Haiti in 2007.

Like Oruko, Jordan also understands the challenges immigrants face when entering the Canadian job market. “If they go to school here and get a certificate, they can find a job easily. But if they do not go to school here, it is difficult to find a job. When I came from my country it was not easy.”

Without the donated fabric, Hillier says that they would not be able to run the sewing program. “We serve about 40 people per year and buying fabric for that class would be completely unsustainable for us as an organization.” Recycling fabric not only financially helps the program, but it contributes to a greener Ottawa. Last year, EcoEquitable diverted 7,000 pounds of fabric away from landfills, and this year, they are aiming to recycle more than 10,000 pounds.

“When you think about the way that we produce clothes now, they are all very disposable, so people think nothing of throwing an old T-shirt or a pair of socks into the landfill,” says Hillier. “Textiles are the world’s second worst polluter after oil and gas.”

According to Hillier, EcoEquitable is the only textile recycler in Ottawa and receives donations from across the province. Sewing for Jobs also leaves no fabric behind. When the program receives fabric scraps, they often get sent to Days for Girls - an organization that makes reusable sanitary products for young women in Africa.

Alongside the international and environmental benefits of the program, there are also students who have found they can use what they’ve learned to create careers for themselves.

Maryan Ghandhari, 52, got a job as a seamstress with EcoEquitable two years ago. She came to Canada in 2009 from Iran, where she taught mathematics and physics. But she was unable to work as an educator in Canada because she did not meet the language requirements. Given that learning the language enough to teach again would be an uphill battle, Ghandhari turned to sewing. Making her own clothing was a hobby she had in her home country, but when she moved to Canada, she saw sewing as an opportunity to pursue a new career.

Since the beginning of the program, 83 per cent of the participants have either found employment or continued their education after the course.

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