Threads of hope and healing connect community of women refugees and immigrants
The sound of whirring sewing machines and hissing steam irons fills the stairwell leading down to The Excel Empowerment Centre (TEEC). The centre, located in a sprawling basement in Winnipeg’s West End, opened in 2018 and grounds its work in peace and reconciliation. The organization has a focus not only on the economic independence and inclusion of newcomer women, but also on building a sense of community and belonging for newcomer immigrants and refugees.
The centre is a labour of love and a form of therapy for Executive Director Rebecca Deng, a South Sudanese Canadian and former lost girl. “We created this organization because most of us come from countries with similar backgrounds,” she says, “The idea here is to empower women and reduce isolation.” Many of the newcomers have lived in refugee camps, experienced extreme poverty and hunger, and saw war and death first-hand. The centre is as much a space for healing as it is for skill building.
The centre provides a safe community space for training, education, and connecting with other women who are navigating a new country. The drop-in centre at TEEC is a gathering place for newcomers to share information, access support services, and find healing and social support.
The economic inclusion of women is key to TEEC’s philosophy, with sewing classes for newcomer women being a central activity, teaching valuable and marketable skills. Learning to thread machines, use beginner patterns, and cut fabric leads to more advanced activities such as taking measurements and tie-dying. The centre focuses on sewing as a skill that can be picked up without prior experience. The learning is peer-supported and doesn’t require that participants speak the same language to help each other, although TEEC does plan to run basic English classes in the future to help participants build language skills, which are key to finding employment opportunities and navigating local systems.
To practice their sewing skills, women from Vietnam, India, and South Sudan sew colourful quilts and feminine hygiene products. A corner of the church basement is stacked ceiling-high with purple quilts that are ready to be shipped overseas in a partnership with the Mennonite Central Committee. The women also sew for local charity using mostly donated supplies. “We sewed and provided blankets to Ukrainian immigrants. They came to a cold country, they need a warm blanket,” Deng says with a smile.
TEEC has a holistic approach, operating with the understanding that cultural and recreational activities support emotional and mental well-being. The kitchen stands idle due to an ongoing renovation, but activities like cooking, storytelling, and arts and crafts are central to TEEC, as activities that help build connection and a sense of belonging. Deng says they have “up to 400 women using the centre” on a drop-in basis. The women mostly live in the neighbourhood, but some come by car to connect with the community.
The pandemic had a significant impact on the centre, and much like other organizations, it pivoted, holding virtual health and well-being workshops, with participants sewing face masks from home. Putting together hampers and packages for quarantined families and doing well-being checks were key activities that helped the centre stay connected to the women it serves. The philosophy of participants at the centre is a belief that strength in community comes from the support of one another.
Deng’s labour of love crosses oceans as TEEC operates here in Winnipeg and in Bor Jonglei State, South Sudan. The sister organizations share the same philosophies of building economic independence for women and supporting one another to build strength in community. Operating TEEC overseas was a way to give back. “I carry a pain inside me from the war. Coming to Canada I could see the difference of someone who was born in a peaceful country. We want to give back,” says Deng.
The Winnipeg Foundations supported The Excel Empowerment Centre with a grant to build sewing skills for newcomer women. TEEC became a registered charity in 2021.