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A girl holding up a quilt square.

The first Soup and Stitches project--three quilts by international students and family members of University international students--will be unveiled on Friday, April 28, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Commonwealth Terrace Cooperative community center.

U reaches out to international families through sewing and soup

By Patty Mattern

April 11, 2006

University of Minnesota graduate student Barbara Pierre-Louis leaned over the sewing machine and carefully guided the fabric again and again until part of her life story came alive on the quilt square.

Soon Pierre-Louis' square will join several others created by 15 of her fellow amateur quilters under a new program launched by the University of Minnesota to reach out to the spouses and partners of international students, and the international students themselves, who often feel isolated and lonely after moving away from their home countries.

Those participating in the program "Soup and Stitches" have been meeting once a week for the last several weeks to build community, create a quilt, learn about resources available at the University, and sample soups from around the world. Soup and Stitches grew out of the efforts by the U of M Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education, Housing and Residential Life, the Office of Student Affairs, International Student and Scholar Services, the School of Social Work, University police, and Commonwealth Terrace Cooperative (CTC) to connect with this community. The program is made possible by a $2,300 grant from TCF Bank.

"Soups and Stitches gives us an opportunity to make families at CTC aware of services and support available to them," says Jamie Tiedemann, director of the Aurora Center, which provides education to prevent domestic violence and offers services to victims of sexual violence, as well as families who have experienced domestic violence.

While many of the Soup and Stitches participants live near one another, they had not met prior to the program, says Silvia Alvarez, a graduate student and CTC resident who helped organize Soup and Stitches. "We wanted to provide an opportunity for people living at CTC to come together and share, especially the spouses who stay at home," says Alvarez.

"What I missed most from Bulgaria was my friends," says Avrora Moussorlieva, whose husband is a graduate student and a cello performer at the U. "I was [also] a guide in a museum, so I was always talking with people. I missed having people around."

Thus far, the participants have all been women, and they come from 12 different countries: Japan, Guatemala, India, Iceland, Bulgaria, Haiti, Thailand, Chile, China, Korea, United States, and Malaysia.

Lynn Cooper, a teaching artist from the Textile Center, taught the participants how to sew, and over the next few days, she will stitch all the squares together into three different quilts. The quilts will hang in the CTC community center as a reminder of where the women came from and the friendships that have been built here. (The artwork will be unveiled during an open house on Friday, April 28, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the CTC community center. The public is invited to see the quilt and share in conversation and ethnic food.)

"I see myself and how I have taken flight and gone to other countries," says Soup and Stitches participant Pierre-Louis, of the image on her quilt square.

During their weekly gatherings, Cooper pushed the new seamstresses to reach deep within to create their pieces.

"People always want to put [familiar] words or explicit symbols on their square," says Cooper. "It takes awhile to break down the barrier of them borrowing images from someone else. [But that's okay, because] I want people to come up with images from themselves [so we can learn about them and their culture]." Culture is always something that represents part of who people are, so it is common to see that come out in their work, she adds.

As the threaded needle bobbed up and down, the image representing Pierre-Louis' life flowed from her imagination onto the fabric. Her square reveals a childhood in Haiti where schoolchildren wore gingham uniforms. Red- and blue-checked gingham make up the palm tree that reminds Pierre-Louis of the Caribbean tropics. Since both the Haitian and American flags contain red, blue, and white, the scene also represents her two worlds coming together. Blue waves hint at Pierre-Louis leaving Haiti and crossing the sea for the United States. Simple birds soar into the sky of Pierre-Louis' square.

"I see myself and how I have taken flight and gone to other countries," explains Pierre-Louis as she points to the airborne creatures. A basket also rests in her artwork symbolizing her being also grounded in the land.

More than artwork has come out of Soup and Stitches for Pierre-Louis, a graduate student in the department of Spanish and Portuguese.

"I've established new friendships and I've learned about myself," she says. "As a grad student or a professional student, you get so bogged down in studies and training, it was nice to be able to break out of that box."