A common thread
A successful novelist gives up her career to change women's lives in Clarkston
It had been almost a year since Cathy Palmer had traded her “idyllic” life on a lake in Missouri for an apartment near the busy intersection of Jimmy Carter Boulevard and Buford Highway in Atlanta. Since she’d put on hold a career as the bestselling author of more than 50 Christian novels to become the unpaid founder of a sewing group for refugee women that met in a closet-sized room at the Clarkston Community Center.
Not to mention on launch day, no one even showed up at the Refugee Sewing Society. When women did start coming, they weren’t Africans, people Palmer could instantly relate to since she grew up in Kenya as the child of American missionaries. Instead, they were mostly Bhutanese.
Then Palmer’s literary agent approached her: Christian book behemoth Thomas Nelson offered a two-book deal with plans for heavy promotion. It would turbo-charge her sales figures and name recognition.
She said yes.
Then she and her husband, Tim, took a trip to the Georgia coast.
“I cried all the way to Savannah,” Palmer, 58, recalls. “I kept saying, ‘What have I done?’”
After a slow start, the Refugee Sewing Society was gaining steam by then and she was starting to see its positive impact on the women’s lives. But Palmer sensed it could do even more.
As she and her husband drove to Savannah they talked about the first novel she would develop for Thomas Nelson — a novel called “The Refugee Sewing Society.”
“I was like, ‘OK, am I writing it? Or am I really doing it?’”
An unexpected calling
Born Catherine Cummins in California, she turned 3 on a boat bound for what was then East Pakistan. Her parents were Southern Baptist missionaries raised in rural Arkansas and Missouri. Even now, Palmer can’t quite fathom it.
“They felt the Lord’s call, and I understand that,” she says.“But ... how did a little small-town person get whatever it took to propel them out into a world that was completely unknown and different?”
Kenya would end up feeling most like home to their eldest of two daughters. Palmer’s parents moved to Nairobi in 1963 to work among the large Indian population there. Except for brief furloughs and summer vacations in the U.S., Palmer never lived anywhere else until she graduated high school. Then off she went to Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo. An aspiring fashion designer, she started out majoring in home economics. But she was such a bad cook, she switched to English.
By then she’d met Tim Palmer, a fellow student. Nearly seven years older, the University of New Mexico dropout and non-practicing Catholic arrived at the little Baptist college on a tennis scholarship to complete his education.
“I fell in love with a hippie,” she says with a laugh.
They married the day after she graduated. A few years later, he gave up teaching tennis full time to enroll in Baylor University’s international journalism program, and Palmer decided to get her master’s in English. She’d always dabbled in writing (mostly “bad poetry”), but now had to churn out a book-length thesis.
“When I finished, I realized I had the stamina to write a real novel from beginning to end,” she says.
Motherhood followed in Artesia, N.M., where Tim Palmer edited the local newspaper. While baby Geoffrey napped (he’s now 29), she wrote. Romance fiction was most receptive to new authors, but as a conservative Christian, she had reservations about the traditional bodice-ripper. Her solution: The “arranged-marriage romance,” where sex occurred within the bounds of matrimony.
With a handful of published novels to her name (she writes as Catherine Palmer), she attended a Christian fiction workshop at a writers’ convention and discovered a wealth of high quality work that spanned many genres. She spent the next two decades writing suspense, romance and mysteries for major publishers such as Tyndale House.
By 2007, she was sitting pretty in Camdenton, Mo., near Lake of the Ozarks. The family — including Andrei, whom she and her husband adopted from Romania in 1993 — jokingly referred to their house and smaller fishing cabin as the “Palmer Family Compound.” Tyndale House was releasing a series of novels she’d written as complements to “The Four Seasons of Marriage,” a nonfiction marriage guide by Gary Chapman, a well-known North Carolina pastor and bestselling author.
That August, she attended the Evangelical Publishers Association’s annual convention in Atlanta and reconnected with a friend from Kenya who was here, working with refugees.
“She probably speaks Swahili. You should go talk to her,” her friend said as they clambered out of the car on a street in Clarkston. Some 10 miles away from her glitzy convention hotel in downtown Atlanta, Palmer been transported to another realm. It was a living tapestry, made up of refugees of all races, religions and nationalities.
Here came a Burmese woman. And an Afghan man smoking a pipe. And an African woman in Muslim garb, the one her friend pointed out.
My goodness, it’s like the whole world has come to Clarkston, she thought.
She reached back to her Kenyan youth and began chatting with the African refugee in Swahili.
Later, she “floated back” to her hotel and telephoned Tim. She had something spiritual to tell him, something quite specific.
A way to help
Five decades after her parents felt called to serve others, now so did Palmer. Not her husband, though, at least not right away. But their 30th wedding anniversary was coming up, and he agreed to celebrate it with a trip back to Clarkston.
“Cathy said, ‘My home is the world,’” Tim Palmer recalled recently in the ranch-style home in Stone Mountain the couple shares with their folk artist son Andrei, 28. “Her duplicity literally knows no bounds!”
But he kept an open mind. They stayed at Huntington Ridge apartment complex where many immigrant families lived and nearby, he noticed,was the Hudlow Tennis Center.
“Seventeen courts,” Tim Palmer grinned. “That seemed like God saying, ‘I’ve got this thing for you right here.’”
By April 2008, they’d moved here. Tim Palmer worked at the tennis center and helped out with the after school program at Huntington Ridge,where they initially lived. Cathy Palmer volunteered in Clarkston for an in-home English as a Second Language (ESOL) program for refugees. Many of her students were women — survivors, really, who’d first been cast violently out of their homelands and then spent years in refugee camps. She wished there was a way to help them more.
Then she remembered a documentary she’d seen on Muhammad Yunus, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering concept of “microcredit”— small loans given to poor entrepreneurs.
Suddenly, it was right in front of her: The Refugee Sewing Society.
Palmer had learned to sew as a kid and made a lot of her own clothes in high school. She hadn’t become a fashion designer, but she could start her own version of micro-lending. Instead of handing out money, she could teach refugee women to sew, and maybe they could make a little money.
Originally Palmer planned to volunteer 20 hours a week to helping refugees and keep on writing for a living, ergo the new two-book deal. But by the time they drove back from Savannah, she’d changed her mind with her husband’s support. She canceled the book deal and committed herself fully to the real Refugee Sewing Society.
Trial and error
In the beginning, it was one tiny room and three donated sewing machines. Palmer envisioned a group of five or six women learning to make simple bags from recycled clothes, then moving on for a new group to take their place. She hung up a few posters at the Clarkston Community Center and waited with another volunteer for someone to show up. When no one did, she button holed a woman in the hallway.
She did. The next day she came back, accompanied by three fellow refugees from Bhutan. And so on, until some 20 refugees came on a regular basis.
Those posters had turned out to be worthless considering many of the women couldn’t read English. Instead, the “refugee grapevine” helped spread the word. Indeed, much about those first years was a case study in trial-and-error.
A few early products like cloth “TV covers” that were de rigeur in many of the women’s homelands, landed with a thud here. So-called “sassy aprons” and “refugee bags” that could be worn slung across the chest did much better, though certain color combinations were a turn-off to American consumers. Some refugee women wanted to weave and knit instead of sew. But it took time to figure out that pillows, bags and rugs made by the “yarn group” sold better than scarves and sweaters in hot, humid Georgia.
Still, there was no denying the Refugee Sewing Society’s growing hold. Piles of donated fabric and yarn began showing up at its door. The first, hastily organized sale onsite made more than $500.
Jasoda Khatiwada, a Bhutanese Hindu with long, pulled-back hair and an unflappable demeanor, first showed up six years ago to make beaded jewelry. Now she is a sewing rock star. Her May paycheck — $525 — set a one-month record at the Refugee Sewing Society. She’s also an additional savvy set of eyes and ears in the workroom, someone Palmer regularly turns to for creative input and practical advice.
The two have become good friends, socializing in each other’s homes and supporting each other during respective family crises.
“She’s my left arm,” Palmer (who’s left-handed) said of Khatiwada. “She has supported me, challenged me, taught me things that have made me a better teacher. And a better me.”
It’s a different, better Refugee Sewing Society than Palmer originally envisioned. Rather than learning a new skill and then leaving the group, many of the women chose to stay put and stitch together a new, permanent community where they’d been lacking one for so long.
One of Palmer’s favorite things is to stand nearby and listen to the women chattering away while they work or share their lunches with one another. It reminds her of Kenya, where her ears became accustomed to hearing English spoken with different accents.
But it’s something more than that.
“I think I understand better than the average American whatthese women are trying to say.”
A place to go
One April morning, Palmer found a quiet spot to talk with Makia Djibrine. The 30-year-old came to the U.S. three years ago from a refugee camp in Chad, where she’d fled the civil war in her native Central African Republic. A Muslim, she walks with a slight limp from what may have been an undiagnosed childhood bout of polio. She smiles frequently, but her eyes sometimes appear weighted with sadness underneath her headscarf.
“My village is gone,” Djibrine said with a sigh. The fighting between Christians and Muslims got so bad, her family had to flee by truck. Her 80-year-old father is still in Chad, but at least she has her 12-year-old daughter here, as well as her brother, who’s disabled, and a cousin.
Djibrine is a testament to refugee resiliency. Despite not having a formal education, she’s learned to read and speak English and has a driver’s license.
Yet in other ways, she’s typical of refugees who suddenly find themselves plopped down in yet another new country to navigate a thicket of unfamiliar customs and scenarios.
For half an hour that day, the two sifted through Djibrine’s mail and weighed various options: Does this utility charge seem oddly high? Is this cellphone offer legit? Does she want her daughter to go to summer camp?
“Keep coming to me with problems,” Palmer said. “We can’t fix the past, but we can fix this.”
After outgrowing two previous locations, the Refugee Sewing Society settled three years ago in a brick building beside the International Bible Church near Clarkston City Hall. Friends of Refugees — a nonprofit that provides employment assistance, ESOL instruction and food and clothing distribution — is in the same building. Since last summer, the Refugee Sewing Society has been under Friends’ “umbrella” for insurance coverage, processing the women’s payrolls and other functions.
Three days a week up to 25 women ranging in age from 30 to 79, from Sudan, The Congo, Burma, Pakistan and beyond, spend five hours in two colorful, fabric-filled workrooms. There, amid much laughter and conversation about family, physical ailments and food, they sew, weave, knit and make beaded jewelry.
Their bags, aprons, dolls and necklaces are sold online on Etsy, at local festivals and in a small store onsite. Seventy percent of the sale price of an item goes to the woman who made it. Each one carries her personalized tag (“I am Bishnu. I escaped war and genocide in Bhutan. Thank you for helping me start a new life!”)
Having grown up as part of the white minority in Kenya, Palmer has some idea what it’s like to make your home in a foreign culture. She“gets” that feeling of not quite belonging somewhere. There’s actually a name for people like her, the grown-up offspring of missionaries, diplomats, military personnel and anyone else who’s, for example, American by birth but raised in another country: Adult Third Culture Kids
“You’re neither one entirely,” Palmer says. “You’re a third culture.”
In a way, so are the Refugee Sewing Society women. They show up not just to sew, but to belong to something that’s uniquely, wholly theirs.
“This is my family here,” says Elizabeth Alier, 66, the self-described grandmother of the group. She’s often one of the first to arrive in the morning, striding in somewhat regally in a colorful print dress and coordinated head cover. She tends to chat less than the younger women but periodically breaks into a broad grin that lights up the room and offers little hint of all she’s endured.
The native of South Sudan left behind a country locked in perhaps the longest civil war in the world. Over 2 million people have died as a result of the conflict between the Muslim North and the Christian South, and tens of thousands of women and children have been abducted and enslaved. Alier, a Christian, lost one son to the conflict. Another is still in Egypt, where she herself was a refugee.
Even after she was safely resettled in the U.S. along with other family members, Alier was uncomfortable staying home with her memories. That started to change when she became part of the Refugee Sewing Society and met Palmer and Bobbi Cox, a volunteer teacher of beginning sewing. Alier has since moved up to advanced sewing and begun making a little money — she used one of her first monthly paychecks to buy milk and cereal for her grandson. But she says that’s not what keeps her coming back.
“When I sleep, I feel Bobbi laughing here and Cathy here,” Alier said, pointing to one ear and then the other.
Like many of the Refugee Sewing Society women, she frequently greets Palmer with a prolonged hug. Their affection for the woman they call “Teacher” is obvious. And when Palmer’s family went through its own crisis, they were quick to recognize and empathize with her pain.
In April 2013, Tim Palmer was diganosed with hydrocephalus, an accumulation of fluid in the brain that can lead to serious brain damage and dementia. For nearly 16 months he was in and out of hospitals. By last summer, he was almost fully recovered, but Cathy Palmer was physically and emotionally exhausted.
“I saw what mortality looks like up close,” she says.
She put her trust in God, but she also started seeing a counselor who diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Then, last August, she and her husband went to Florida on vacation. In the course of “not doing anything,” Palmer says, “I found my brain was starting to be creative again.”
Soon, for the first time in six years, she began writing a new book.
Big new venture
“I hear people sewing, but we didn’t say ‘Go’ yet.”
Palmer stood in the middle of the advanced sewing room andthrust her hand in the air, signaling “Stop.” Behind her, Cox and anothervolunteer were busy cutting tiny body pieces out of brown fabric. In front ofher, seven members of the Refugee Sewing Society sitting at a U-shapedconfiguration of work tables looked up expectantly from their machines.
“Makia, you’re ... ?” Palmer called out, making one finalcheck of assignments.
“Legs,” Djibrine said softly from one end of the “U.”
Palmer’s gaze fell on the petite Burmese woman sitting onespot over from Djibrine.
“And Zil,” she said, “You’re sewing the legs on, good.”
Palmer checked the time on her watch.
“Any questions? OK, ready ... Everybody, Go!’”
The machines whirred to life. It was the first Monday in Mayand the next, potentially life-changing phase of the Refugee Sewing Society wasunderway: A test to see if they could create a “refugee doll” production line in which each woman sewed a different body part or helped assemble them.
Almost from the beginning, Palmer had wanted the group tomake cloth dolls. Periodically, they’d tried coming up with one — that fabricwas the wrong shade, those embroidered faces took too long to complete — but itwas only recently that they settled on a design for a doll that looked justright.
These were 18-inch tall, brown-skinned charmers in nativeoutfits sewn by refugees who mostly hadn’t had dolls themselves as kids, butwho certainly knew how one from Asia or Africa should dress. Meanwhile, Palmerhad been toying with the idea of writing companion books for the dolls. Lastfall, fresh off her creative surge in Florida, she began writing a tale about a12-year-old girl from South Sudan who flees the soldiers attacking her villageand tries to make her way to a refugee camp in Uganda. Aimed mostly at preteenreaders, “Nomi’s Hiding Place” is a compelling story with an importantunderlying message: When refugee kids who dress differently and maybe don’tspeak English suddenly appear at school or the ballfield, they don’t needostracizing. They need a friend.
So do the dolls. Maybe that could be theircompelling message.
Enter Todd Harrison, a Gwinnett businessman who started outas a Refugee Sewing Society client — the group made sheets for his daycaresupply company — but became a volunteer. He helped the group get its 501(c)(3)nonprofit status, joined its board and freely offered up his business know-how.
Harrison sensed that dollmaking could create a more steady revenuestream than soliciting donations and selling “pillows and placemats atfestivals.” Every part of the Refugee Sewing Society could be involved, eventhe yarn group to knit little doll sweaters. If it was successful, the womenmight start receiving regular hourly wages rather than unpredictable per-itemproceeds.
“What if these women could go to work for 25 hours a week,and bring home $800 to $1,000 a month?” said Harrison, “For a refugee family inClarkston, Georgia, that’s a game-changer.”
But there was much to consider first: Would it be better forthe women to work on dolls alone? Or in teams full of specialists, say, inattaching arms and stuffing bodies? Should everyone be paid the same rate? Orought speed and difficulty count for something? Should they onlymake dolls, or should they also continue sewing the bags and aprons that hadkept the Refugee Sewing Society going all these years?
That first week in May, the beginning and advanced sewers allcame together in one room and worked as a dollmaking team for the first time.They completed five dolls. During a second trial week, when most of the women’sskills had improved and the Refugee Sewing Society experimented with payingeveryone an hourly wage, they finished 13.
Last month, Palmer — who remains an unpaid volunteer — and anadvisory group that included Harrison and Friends of Refugees executivedirector Brian Bollinger, decided the Refugee Sewing Society should proceedwith a first edition run of 200 dolls. Known as the “Nomi” doll, they will beavailable via a Kickstarter campaign that will help raise awareness and startupfunds for the doll project.
Before the campaign went live, final decisions on productionand pricing matters still loomed. But Palmer appeared almost serene as shegazed out from her tiny office at the advanced sewing room where Makia Djibrineand several others had recently moved up from the beginning group to theadvanced sewing group and were learning to make aprons. Palmer felt contentedknowing those beginner spots wouldn’t stay empty for long. Two more refugees,from Eritrea and Kurdistan, had stopped by the day before and expressedinteresting in joining.
The doll project “helped me get my zest back,” Palmer said.In fact, she was already plotting a second book — this one about a Bhutaneserefugee girl.
Whatever happens, Palmer said, “the Refugee Sewing Society will still be here.”
And so will she.
“It’s like you fit in again,” she said. “I know this is where I’m supposed to be.”
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
When Cathy Palmer sent us an email about the Refugee Sewing Society, I was intrigued by her backstory as a Christian novelist. I worked on this story for over two months and easily spent 35 hours at the Refugee Sewing Society – long enough to see the doll project go from plans on a clipboard to reality. And long enough to get my own nickname – “News” – from the wise and funny women in the advanced sewing room. I also interviewed Palmer numerous times, went to church with her and her family, and spent a day in their home. Given her background, Palmer easily could have written this story herself. I’m honored she entrusted it to me.
ABOUT THE REPORTER AND PHOTOGRAPHER
Jill Vejnoska has worked for the AJC for more than 20 years, covering everything from sports and politics to television and food. This is her eighth Personal Journeys feature. She is a native of Westfield, N.J.
Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography and joined the AJC photo staff in 2007.