Fartun Ismail

Fartun Ismail with tote bags and sewing machineSeptember 2022 – An old Somali proverb holds that: “If people come together, they can even mend a crack in the sky.” Edina resident Fartun Ismail perfectly embodies this optimistic attitude toward community and collaboration. 

Ismail is founder of the Somali American Women Action Center (SAWAC), a Minnesota-based support network by and for immigrant and refugee women in Minnesota. 

She emigrated from the refugee camps in Kenya, moving with just two things: a bag of clothes and a dream to live in a better place that would allow her to continue her grandmother's legacy. Ismail founded SAWAC based on her personal experience.

While her own experience navigating an unfamiliar country, culture and language helped to shape SAWAC's mission, Ismail says that her inspiration actually dates back further – much further. 

“I say that SAWAC started with my grandmother back in Africa,” she explained. “She was a gifted sewer … And as early as the 1940s, she taught this important skill to other women.” 

While a simple enough gesture on its surface, Ismail says the lessons had far-reaching implications. Sewing proficiency afforded these women an independent source of income – and this at a time when men dominated Somalia’s textile industry. 

In addition, her grandmother encouraged trainees to prioritize durable and reusable tote bags called "dambiil" in Somali. Ismail speaks of her with pride as an environmental advocate before her time. “Here she was, a woman of color educating other women about climate issues and offering a way [to make] a difference … suggesting a fiber alternative to plastic bags.”

Fast forward to today, and this business model is timelier than ever. Ismail says that many women in the SAWAC network are widows in need of a steady source of income. Moreover, nearly all resettled in Minnesota in part because of civil war and climate degradation in drought-stricken Somalia. 

Unsurprisingly, “Sewing 4 Life” quickly became one of the not-for-profit’s most important initiatives. It presently engages many seamstresses in Edina and Minneapolis on the production of dambiil alone. 

“Our women sell the totes in their own neighborhoods, and we are planning to have a store presence at the Minnesota History Center and Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD),” Ismail said. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, SAWAC also staffs tables at Jerry’s Foods in Edina, selling women's handmade and climate-friendly bags.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Ismail and her team pivoted quickly to the production of cloth face masks. “We took on contracts for 5,000 [masks] – 3,000 for North Memorial Hospital, and another 2,000 for use by Hennepin County.”

COVID-19 brought a silver lining for Sewing 4 Life, by forcing organizers to shift operations to a work-from-home model. “All of our women are mothers with kids to take care of, and they actually prefer working from home. Some have called this a dream come true.” 

SAWAC simply drops raw materials at their doorsteps, and picks up each participant’s dambiil every two weeks. It amounts to well over 500 tote bags every month. Each is a unique piece of textile art, and each has the potential to save dozens of single-use plastic bags from landfills. 

“We’re fighting for the climate and elimination of [plastic] bags, just like [my] grandmother … We have been climate refugees once, and we don’t want to be climate refugees again.”