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How Vickery Trading Company transforms refugees’ lives one stitch at a time

Zar Zar Win, a refugee from Burma, sews a cuff onto a striped button-up blouse at Vickery Trading Company.
Jordan Petteys
Zar Zar Win, a refugee from Burma, sews a cuff onto a striped button-up blouse at Vickery Trading Company.

A low, persistent hum fills the air as sewing machine needles pierce all-natural fabrics. Light from a large glass window illuminates dozens of color-coded thread spools hanging on the wall. The subtle scent of machine oil surrounds women who make small talk at their stations.

Abeer Alaref, an Iraqi refugee, works at a table in the middle of the room. She smiles while feeding pieces of light green cloth through a sewing machine.

“I love it here because it provides a job for me,” she said. “In the future, I want to open a business for sewing; I will make dresses for kids.”

Alaref is one of 50 women to participate in the 21-month Sewing Training Program at Vickery Trading Company, a nonprofit in Dallas.

Through the company’s vocational training, the women learn to sew on industrial machines and earn a wage starting at $10 an hour. In addition to the training, the company offers basic computer and math classes, English classes and trauma-informed yoga.

Stephanie Giddens founded the nonprofit in 2015 and hires refugee women as seamstresses to provide them with a community, support services and a job. Giddens said her company has employed refugee women from Afghanistan, Iraq, Burma, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

“Many of these women come from cultures where they are considered second-class, so to know that they are capable of something and are able to work, to earn money with their own hands and to provide for their families is a very empowering prospect for them,” she said.

The women start learning sewing basics, such as backstitching and stitching in straight and curved lines, on a home sewing machine. After about four to six weeks, the women learn the same skills at a faster pace on industrial machines.

“[Sewing] is a skill that many women from overseas have been exposed to at some point in their life, and it does not require a high level of English to master the skill," Giddens said. “They’re able to have a low barrier of entry and higher levels of success earlier on.”

After training, the women make garments for Vickery Trading. The items are sold online and have ranged in price from $9 to $148. The company plans to launch a new line of women’s t-shirts and blouses in April.

Each purchase includes a card that shares details of the women who made the product.

“That's just a way to invite customers into their refugee journey and understand that their purchase was able to help a real person and help launch them into a new career as they start their life in the United States,” Giddens said.

Two participants in Vickery Trading Company’s 21-month Sewing Training Program pin and piece together a striped button-up blouse.
Jordan Petteys
Two participants in Vickery Trading Company’s 21-month Sewing Training Program pin and piece together a striped button-up blouse.

Vickery Trading also sells to private clients. Giddens said partnerships help sustain the social enterprise and allow women to work with different machines and fabrics.

Munira Syeda, owner of Chic & Gold, hired Vickery Trading to sew pouches and block-printed hair accessories. Syeda emphasizes the importance of supporting local businesses.

“Vickery is doing a great job of teaching refugee women sewing skills and helping them land jobs after their sewing training is completed,” she said.

Sixteen women have graduated from the program so far, and six more will graduate in May. Giddens said Vickery Trading prepares the women for employment through mock interviews, resume preparation and employer tours.

“We invest deeply in a small number of people,” she said. “Once we launch them, they’re thriving and doing well.”

Twelve of the sixteen graduates are currently employed in manufacturing, tailoring and alterations. One graduate works for Nordstrom and dreams of opening a shop.

In the future, Giddens said Vickery Trading plans to expand its product lines to support a more significant portion of its revenue, enabling the company to hire more refugee women.

“They need all the support they can get,” she said.

Arts Access is an arts journalism collaboration powered by The Dallas Morning News and KERA.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The University of Texas at Dallas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

Amara Asrawi is a fellow on the Arts Access Team at the Dallas Morning News. She is a senior at Southern Methodist University, pursuing degrees in Journalism and Philosophy.