PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — When Adele Ngoy arrived in Portland, she knew no one.
She arrived, a single mother, with her three young children from the Democratic Republic of Congo, an area engulfed in a deadly civil war. She left for fear of their safety. She didn't know a word of English but she did know how to sew.
Now, more than a decade after arriving, she has successfully started her own business. And inside a newly renovated space in Portland’s Bayside, she is sharing her skills, teaching new immigrants and refugees to Maine how to sew.
"All of them, I need that line, for me to cut I really need that line," Ngoy tells one of her students during a Tuesday morning class. She is teaching them, step by step, how to make a dress. "Three inches and then we're gonna cut on three inches. You can get the tape measure and then you do this."
Six women – from Angola, Congo, Brundi and El Salvador – are learning, stitch by stitch the ins and outs of sewing from a true pro. In her homeland, Adele Ngoy was considered a big deal in the fashion design world.
"It's very important for me to see someone coming here just because I came here this same way, I didn't know any word in English. The only thing that I have when I came was my skill. I brought my skill with me."
That skill landed Ngoy a seamstress position at David's Bridal at the Maine Mall. Last month, after years of planning, she opened her own shop, located in the Antoine’s Tailor shop on Congress Street. Several mornings a week, she puts on her teacher hat. She considers her class a lesson in "paying it forward."
"Sewing I think they can find a job anywhere and there is a need at this time, in this town, in this state there is a need for a lot of seamstresses."
Ngoy teaches her students to trace, pin, and cut out the patterns before getting behind the sewing machine to stitch them together. But the real lessons happening here? Adele is helping them learn English, and very foreign seeming American customs.
"We talk about life in America, how they're going to deal with the workplace, how it's important for them to speak English, how it's important to be part of their kid's life, we talk about everything, I'm just kind of a mentor for them."
That mentorship is often the first step to landing a job here. And for refugees and new immigrants, finding work is the key to freedom.
"Adele is a very, very wonderful teacher," Prisca shares. She arrived in Maine 10 months ago from the African nation of Brundi. Prisca was a psychologist. Savage civil unrest, violence and murders forced her leave with just the clothes on her back." When we arrived here, we didn't bring nothing. All our things are in Brundi, our families, everything, our house, our cars, everything car there."
She also left her psychology practice in Brundi. To practice psychology in the U.S., Prisca would have to take multiple, expensive years of schooling. Instead, she has set her sights on becoming a seamstress, thanks to Adele’s assistance. In class, Adele tells Prisca, "you're going to do this, take all your pieces, you can go in the room and take this try on your machine if it's going to need stitching and keep all our pieces together."
Prisca's story is one Adele knows well. It was in 2000 that a bloody war was tearing apart her own country of Congo. She left quickly in order to save herself and her three children.
"It was very scary and they were killing people. It was an ethnic war and you didn't know what was going to happen the next day when you woke up. You can be on the streets, in your house, anywhere and anything can happen to you. It was so scary." Adele believes that had she stayed, she would have been killed because of her own mixed background. She is part Congolese, part Rwandan.
"I truly understand, I truly understand and I truly know what they are going through and that is also the reason why I want to do it to try to help them."
Alba, who is from El Salvador, works as a seamstress. She takes Adele’s sewing class to help sharpen her skills.
"She's taught me a lot of things that I didn't know before like tricks and here I'm learning professional how to cut, how to take a measurement."
And now Alba has dreams of following in Adele's footsteps, opening her own store, too. And Adele promises she will be there to help with that, too.
"Your pieces, they are not flat. And you put too many, it's not the paper, it's you. You see, you do this and you put so many pins, you have to make it flat."
Adele says she is firm with her students because she wants them to learn the correct way to sew, from the beginning. Just like the life lessons she freely shares in class.
"I help them to have a self-esteem and trust themselves because when they see me, it gives them hope. Like I always tell them, 'if I did it, you can do it.'"
It took Adele 17 years to open her own business and now she is building a staff to help her run it smoothly. She has two employees and is looking to hire two more seamstresses. Chances are good, the best candidates may come from her own class.
”There are many people who know how to use the machine but there’s no professional stitchers, that’s a difference. Many people they can use the machine and they can sew, many people do a lot of sewing but to be a professional stitcher, to walk into a factory, you need to have a certain skill and certain knowledge to do that.”
Adele Ngoy says she is committed to making sure her seamstresses have those skills and that knowledge.