The Kindness of Strangers

12 January 2020

When Esmee Rowden and her husband Ian retired, they wanted to volunteer.  Little did Esmee know their altruistic journey would hit the headlines, bring together communities, and – most importantly – change the lives of refugees. How? Through the gift of sewing machines.


It all started when their youngest daughter, Carmel, emailed her parents recommending they
volunteer for the Red Cross, helping newly arrived refugees settle into New Zealand. This involves meeting families at the airport, helping them unpack things in their new home, and setting up appointments for schools, doctors, and dentists. The process takes about six weeks.

Esmee got involved, and started helping the Norbasha family from Myanmar last September. She noticed that the youngest Norbasha child couldn’t get a school uniform for her petite size, and mother Shenenas had to alter it all by hand.

“I could see that it was a lot of work,” Esmee remembers, “so I said, ‘Would you like a sewing machine?’, and her eyes lit up.”

Esmee then turned to her eldest daughter, Thalia, author of a popular blog called Sacraparental, who put out a request on Twitter. Three machines were offered within five minutes. By the end of the day, the number had grown to 40.

It didn’t end there. Esmee asked her own retirement village, Summerset on Summerhill in Palmerston North, to help out with accessories. When she returned days later, she found the clothes basket she’d left at the Rec Centre overflowing with donations of pin cushions, safety pins, lace, sewing scissors, and much more. Nearby Summerset villages – Summerset at Aotea, Summerset by the Ranges in Levin, and Summerset on the Coast in Paraparaumu – also gave generously.

For refugees like the Norbasha family, Esmee explains, having a sewing machine is a lifeline, and being able to make things is a source of pride. As soon as the brand-new machine had been delivered, Shenenas was happily making clothes for herself and her two children.

Motivated by this, and by the kindness of Kiwis in the community, Esmee and Thalia decided to create a donation network across the country.

Anyone wishing to donate a machine can go direct to a participating Red Cross Pathways to Settlement Centre or one of Esmee’s depots.

Esmee says no one she asked has ever said no to the project. To date, just over 100 sewing machines have been placed with former refugee families – with more on the way. “I do it because, well, I can,” Esmee says. “Although, I thought I’d stop getting emails after I retired!”

Read more about life at Summerset in our quarterly magazine Summerset Scene