The Sewing Program at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center is a job skills development program that teaches sewing techniques to women in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, District of Columbia. Women attend sewing training classes to learn how to make curtains, lamp shades, hand bags, and much more. They sell their handmade products during religious services at the Islamic Center and often find sustainable employment as a tailor or seamstress upon completion of the program.  

All photos courtesy of Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center.
Background information
The Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center is located in Falls Church, Virginia, in the northern Virginia suburbs across the Potomac River from Washington, District of Columbia.  The Islamic Center runs a variety of social services programs that serve the needs of the entire community.  According to Tahani Jabarin, who started working with the Islamic Center in 2002 and currently serves as the Director of Social Services, the Islamic Center offers an emergency financial assistance program, a weekly food bank and food delivery program, a thrift store and furniture donation program, after-school tutoring for middle and high school students, a school supplies distribution program, foster care training, ESL classes, funeral services assistance, blanket and toy drives for refugees, and programs such as Iftar evening meals during Ramadan.

In February of 2014, Tahani helped launch the Road to Self-Sufficiency sewing program.  A nearby homeless shelter was referring Muslim women to the Islamic Center for assistance, and Tahani noticed that many of the referrals were families or single women with children who had no source of sustainable income. In order to move out of the shelter into subsidized housing, the women had to show documentation to prove they had a job. Tahani started the sewing program to teach the women marketable skills so that they could obtain employment as a tailor or seamstress and possibly work within their own home. According to Tahani, the mission of the program “is to teach women within our community a marketable trade through which they can gain self-sufficiency.”

In 2015, the Road to Self-Sufficiency sewing program partnered with Empowered Women International.  EWI came to the Islamic Center to conduct a three-month program to inspire women to use their skills to launch their own entrepreneurial businesses.  Women learned about finance, entrepreneurship, business practices, and general life skills.  EWI received a grant to help supplement the cost of the program so that students did not have to pay the full price, and a total of twenty-six women graduated from the three-month program in December 2015.

Current activities
Today, the sewing program is at its full capacity with a waiting list of women who wish to join.  Tahani says they need more space to accommodate expanding the program from twelve to twenty-four participants.  Women meet twice per week for sewing training and also sell their handmade products at the Islamic Center on Fridays during the Islamic Center’s religious services, which regularly draw thousands of attendees.  Women in the program are from a variety of countries, including Turkey, Sudan, Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Somalia, and even some Latin American countries.  The women make curtains, lamp shades, handbags, baskets, dresses, and clothing.  With input from group leaders, artisans decide what price to ask for their handmade items, and they receive 50% of the proceeds from sales, with the other 50% returning to the group to purchase additional raw materials.

Impact and future plans
Because of generous donations from a national US-based Islamic charity to the Islamic Center’s social services programs, as well as individual and private donors, all raw materials are free for the group’s artisans.  There is a program participation fee on a sliding scale which is determined by a woman’s current income.  Throughout the sewing program, which generally lasts for four months, women gain employment skills, build confidence, work and sell products while learning new skills, and develop a base of future customers.  Upon graduation, which requires a total of one-hundred hours of sewing, women receive a certificate of completion as well as a sewing machine to use within their own home.  Graduates of the program often return as volunteers and mentors to teach new students.

In addition, the group currently has two paid teachers.  One is a former student and graduate of the program, and the other is a woman who had her own sewing business for forty years and now teaches the advanced sewing classes.  Tahani says the group could benefit from additional volunteers and mentors, and with additional financial support, they would like to purchase commercial-grade sewing equipment for the women to use.

When discussing the group’s future plans, Tahani says, “I envision DAH renting a commercial space, such as a community center, so that many more women may join us, and so we could connect with other resources and serve up to one-hundred women per semester.  God will help us.  One of the reasons for the success of this program is the participation of the benevolent members of our community. I am certain that, with their continued support, we will be able to achieve our goal of helping more and more women attain self-sufficiency.”  When asked about the impact of the group, Tahani says, “Women learn more than simply sewing in this class; they also begin to master patience and delicacy, and they apply these newly learned skills to their day-to-day lives.  Women feel accepted and make friends here.  I feel genuine joy every time I witness them bond and develop such pure familial connections with one another.  I think of these women as my sisters, and of the younger artisans as my daughters. Some women have even said to me, ‘You changed my life with this program.  This has given me the self-confidence and self-esteem I needed to believe in myself and in my abilities. I feel like my prospects have expanded significantly’  These women often say that they felt lonely and alone before joining the program, but they now believe in themselves and have confidence in their ability to re-join the workforce.”

With special thanks to Tahani Jabarin, Director of Social Services for the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center, for all of her time and insights throughout this project.

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