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Oregonian, OR, 01/30/04 (Oregonian) – A long, jaunty red leopard-print skirt made by one of her classmates hangs on the wall as inspiration. But first, Ramla Mohamed must learn to sew a seam.
"Look," sewing teacher Abdulaziz Haji says. "One . . . two."
Haji folds over the scrap fabric twice and deftly inserts straight pins. He was a professional tailor in Somalia; in Oregon, he sews wallets in a factory. Haji sends Mohamed, 15, to practice on an empty sewing machine in a row of a half-dozen.
Dressed head-to-toe in the traditional flowing outfits they hope to someday make, the Somali refugee women -- ranging from teens to grandmothers -- alternately work and chat in bursts. They meet three times a week at the Somali Community Service Coalition of Oregon center in Southwest Portland.
The sewing class is a sign of a refugee community coming of age. Somalis starting arriving in the Portland area in the early 1990s, when civil war devastated the east African country. Community members estimate there are about 3,500 in Oregon today.
At first, life was about survival. Refugee service agencies helped the men find jobs, and women stayed home with the children. Needs were basic: rent, food and school for the children. There wasn't time to think about the Somali tradition of having clothes tailor-made.
But over time, the women complained they were bored at home all day. Families had trouble-making ends meet on one income. The two or three Somali tailors in town were backlogged whenever there were special occasions.
So organizers of the 3-year-old Somali community coalition obtained a $10,000 Oregon Community Foundation grant to buy sewing machines and start a classes and job training programs. The classes are held three times a week, and about 45 women attend.
Organizers say this program happened because they've learned to apply for grants and come up with community-based solutions to problems. Like most refugee and immigrant communities, they're creating their own economy by meeting specific needs, such as halal foods, which meet Muslim dietary guidelines, and traditional clothing.
The upbeat mood at the center on sewing-class days is a long way from the dark days after Sept. 11, 2001, says Farhia Omar, who helps run the program. Back then, women were afraid to go out because many of them had been harassed for wearing traditional Muslim dress.
The community has come together more across the traditional tribal dividing lines of north and south Somalia as well, Omar said. In addition, they are preparing for the anticipated arrival of a couple of hundred Bantu refugees, members of an ethnic group that was historically a slave class in Somalia and has faced severe discrimination in modern times.
"America has enhanced our solidarity as Somalis," said Omar, 24, an Aloha resident. "When you wear traditional clothes, you feel a sense of belonging. It makes you feel that even if you are far away from home, you still have something from there."
In addition, women who want western clothes, as many do, have trouble buying them off the rack because of religious conventions. Ankle-length skirts often have slits that are too high, and many clothes are too fitted, Omar said.
"I can make clothes for my kids, and mend them if they tear them. It saves money," Fartun Warsame, 25, of Aloha, says through an interpreter. "Before, I was just home with the kids. Now I'm getting skills."
Bashir Warsame (no relation to Fartun), the Somali coalition's president, said the organization has come a long way since its early days of barely being able to pay its rent in the strip-mall space it occupies on Southwest Barbur Boulevard.
In addition to the Oregon Community Foundation grant, the coalition has started a computer-training program with grants from the Meyer Memorial Trust and the Black United Fund of Oregon. It just embarked on a partnership with Neighborhood House Inc. to provide a parent-child development program, called Midnimo African Collaboration, for Somali and Oromo (from Ethiopia) refugees in Multnomah County.
The coalition is ever-growing, and the next challenge is to find money to lease more space for its activities, Bashir Warsame said.
"We've come a long way in three years," he said. "We're learning every day."
Angie Chuang: 503-221-8219; email@example.com