Refugees receive help stitching together a new life in Clarkston

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

On her trips around the world, Denise Smith has always carried her trusty sewing machine.

Sewing is a big part of her life. And, for the past 11 years, Smith’s been using it as a tool to help female refugees from around the world piece together new lives in the United States.

Through her nonprofit, Peace of Thread, Smith has assisted more than 100 refugees from at least 11 countries, most recently Ukraine.

These women came with their families to the United States to escape hardship, such as famine, persecution, war and genocide. Most don’t expect to return to their homelands, and they need job skills and work to help restart their lives, Smith said.

With help from volunteers, Peace of Thread’s small staff shows these women how to make one-of-a-kind handbags and other accessories.

“It’s a good part-time job that’s helping sustain them at $500 to $1,000 a month,” Smith said. “And their children aren’t latchkey. They are actually watching their mothers work.”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Peace of Thread is based in Clarkston, a city in DeKalb County known as the most diverse square mile in America.

Its headquarters is tucked in a quaint building off one of the city’s main thoroughfares. The doors open to work tables, gorgeous fabrics, rows of carefully organized supplies and women quietly working.

Najah , a refugee from Iraq who came to the United States in 2009, oversees the training of the newest arrivals.

“It’s a very artistic job, a very artisan job,” Smith said. “It’s not just sewing a square. The women must be detailers and really become true artisans to graduate. If they don’t make it, they’re always our friends.”

The women train — usually two at a time — for about four to six months. Expert seamstresses — including volunteers from the community — are on hand to help, since some of the refugees have never touched a sewing machine or spoken much, if any, English.

A refugee is ready to graduate into a paid part-time job with Peace of Thread when she has mastered the nonprofit’s 35 designs, said director of operations Stephanie Marbut.

The handbags, backpacks, wallets and other accessories sell online, in boutiques and at art festivals.

The refugee receives half of the selling price, which for a handbag is usually $60 or more.

Once the women graduate, they’re given a sewing machine, light, table, ironing board and iron. . Each also is assigned an advocate who becomes her mentor and friend while they work from home and practice English.

Najah has been with Smith since the nonprofit’s inception in 2011. She loved her homeland and only decided to leave for her family’s safety. Her husband, a former military pilot, was being hunted and would likely have been killed if found.

Her family left Iraq in 2004 and spent the next five years in Jordan. The youngest of her three children was only one month old when they finally made it to America, where she became a citizen in 2014.

Najah said she’s found friendship and community through her work with Peace of Thread. And she’s grateful that in America, her family has a safe place to live, study, and work.

But she also misses her ailing mother and 12 brothers and three sisters who remain in Iraq. “I miss all that,” said Najah. “But there’s danger there. And after I lost everything, I wanted a new life.”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

‘Dignity, value and a voice’

Smith and her husband, Art, had been doing overseas mission-related work for years when she was asked to put her Arabic language skills to work for two weeks while entertaining the mothers of refugee children who were preparing to start American public school.

She decided to go a step further and put her sewing machine to work. The women were receptive, but the thought of providing them ongoing training hadn’t entered Smith’s mind.

“In fact, if someone had asked me 20 years ago if I thought I’d be making handbags, providing a job skill for refugees, and helping marginalized women, I would have laughed and said: ‘You’ve got the wrong woman.”

But the women liked sewing, and kept it up in spaces Smith found for them, first in spare rooms in local apartment complexes and later in their apartments. Smith rode around Clarkston with sewing machines, fabrics and other supplies in her convertible.

“It was Peace of Thread on wheels,” she said. “Then it became Peace of Thread in an office of some kind in an apartment complex.”

Finally, the nonprofit settled into its current home on East Ponce de Leon Avenue, within walking distance from the apartment complexes where many refugees initially settle.

“We envision a world where every woman has dignity, value, and a voice,” Smith said.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Peace of Thread has a wide and varied network of supporters, including the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center (ADAC), which keeps the nonprofit supplied with samples of high-end fabrics.

Women’s groups, civic clubs, student organizations and even the film industry have been supportive — when “The Hunger Games” series filmed in Atlanta years ago, the production donated costumes and fabric to Peace of Thread.

The organization has been nimble. The women started out making sleeves for laptop computers and tablets 11 years ago, just as tablets were taking off.

During the pandemic, they switched to making protective face masks.

“Job skills are important on so many levels. They bring confidence and hope,” Smith said. “Women talk, and women see. They want freedom, education for their children, and they want to live in peace.”

To learn more about Peace of Thread, visit The organization accepts monetary donations, feminine products, brooches, gently used belts and purses. Women can be sponsored to learn the skills taught at Peace of Thread for a tax-deductible donation of $2,500.