Sewing machines whir while hands make magic with fabric and a gentle buzz of conversation wraps around the room.

It’s a long way from the horrors of Rwanda, this cheerful little sewing room in the basement of The Mustard Seed, an outreach life-skills centre in Riverdale. It’s been an integral part of a long healing process for Janet Mukagatsinzi, 53, a Rwandan Tutsi refugee who had to leave five children behind when she came to Canada alone in 2002, after losing many members of her family in the genocide of the civil war.

A Hutu friend, says Mukagatsinzi, recommended Canada as a place where she “might find peace. To be in Rwanda was to be ... disaster. I felt crazy, sometimes I wish to die.”

For a long time she lived in a women’s shelter and took English language courses. Early on, the shelter referred her to The Mustard Seed, which offers free drop-in activities, a clothing bank and programs such as computer training, foot care, crafts, conversation and games. It also serves up about 100 meals every week, to anyone in need.

The Mustard Seed’s director, Sister Gwen Smith, recalls that when Mukagatsinzi first arrived, she was very quiet and still recovering emotionally from her ordeal in Rwanda.

“She didn’t speak much English,” said Smith, who’s 80 but bustles around the roomy centre, once a grocery store, with the energy of someone 30 years younger.

Though she hadn’t sewn before, Mukagatsinzi started coming to sessions run by the cheerful Sister Barbara Grozelle.

Grozelle chimes in on Mukagatsinzi, “The day after her kids arrive she finds out she has cancer and has to go into the hospital. Her poor kids have to learn how to navigate the TTC in one day to get to the hospital!”

Mukagatsinzi had chemotherapy and radiation and is now considered cancer-free.

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