RICHFIELD, Minn. — Nyamal Both gently sits on her couch and positions herself to accommodate the weight of her eight-month pregnancy. She closes her eyes, tilts her head back a little.
“So, how did I get here?” she wonders loudly.
She’s been through a lot. Too much for her tender age of 19. For this young and extremely talented Sudanese fashion designer life has been anything but an easy pass.
Her journey began in the Gambela region of Ethiopia, where she was born. As a child she had always had a creative streak.
“I was into ceramic art,” she recalls. “I made little people by putting shapes together.”
Like any 5-year-old, Both had always wanted to see the city. She was excited when she finally got a chance to go visit an aunt in Addis Ababa. As she bade her family farewell, it did not occur to her that she would never go back – that she would end up in the United States.
Both was too young to remember how her aunt and her husband were able to include her in their visa to come to the United States. But she does have the memory of her father traveling to Addis Ababa to protest her leaving the country. In the end, her aunt prevailed by convincing him that America was the only chance his fragile and sickly child had to get good medical care. Little did Both know that America would be anything but the Paradise she envisioned.
In the faraway land she found her refuge in art. There was no mud to make little people, so she started drawing cartoons, which she still does today. By seventh grade she was making comics, but she was no ordinary seventh grader. At home she was taking care of her nieces and nephews and this made it hard to concentrate in school. There was no room to complain about the workload of caring for four young children, because she was punished whenever she did.
Nevertheless she was getting by fine in school; she even won a pillow-sewing project and focused her energy on sewing. She enjoyed it so much that by the 9th Grade she was tearing up her old clothes and re-patching them.
“Kids at school would ask where I’d bought my clothes,” she remembers.
She would give any excuse, but mention that she had made the clothes herself. Later a neighbor introduced Both to his mom, Joy Bliek, who taught her how to use a sewing machine and introduced her to numerous sewing patterns.
“We kind of struck a bond,” says Bliek. “She came alive when she came to my place. She was very creative and never used the same pattern twice. She had the talent, all she needed was access. She was like a rose bud just going into blossom.”
But this tender rose was not handled with the same care and affection at home. The aunt and uncle she lived with physically abused her. To escape the violence, Both spent as much of her free time as she could in front of the sewing machine at Bliek’s house. But her absence from the house only led to more abuse from her uncle and aunt, who accused her of avoiding chores and responsibilities to stay out late with boys.
Soon the abuse turned from physical to sexual. Her uncle entered her room when his wife was away at work.
“He would come to my room at around two or three in the morning,” she begins with a wavering voice, as tears roll down her eyes. “He came one day, then the next day, and would do so monthly.”
When she finally gathered courage to speak about the abuse, her aunt quickly dismissed her accusations as lies. She decided to go to another uncle who initially appeared to be friendly, but when he also tried to take advantage of her, she realized she could not trust anyone.
“I was angry with my parents,” she says. “How could they have abandoned me? Is this what they wanted for me?”
Both continued to seek solace at Bliek’s sewing machine to escape the trouble at home. For Christmas in 2003, Bliek surprised her with a brand new sewing machine for a present.
“I was extremely excited!” she recalls.
But the excitement would only last a week. On New Year’s Day, the tension that had been piling between and her uncle came to a climax. They got into a quarrel that prompted him kick her out of the house. She had no one to turn to other than Bliek and her uncle didn’t hesitate to relinquish his official duties as guardian over to Bliek. Bliek and Both were happy with the decision, but after a while Dakota County government officials ruled that Both could not live with Bliek. They moved her to foster care.
Between 2003 and August 2006, Both would live in six different foster homes. Before she could settle down in one home, it was time to move. But into each one of them she moved with her sewing machine. Sewing had become not only her passion, but also a form of therapy as she attempted to cope with her unstable life.
With each home came a new experience, a new challenge. At one home an uncle of her guardian sexually abused her, which led to a long, dragging case in court. As she tried to get justice, members of her community were busy trying to convince her to drop the case to avoid ruining the man’s life. She was so terribly confused that she changed her mind about testifying against the man.
In school she kept up a normal appearance and by the 11th Grade, her talent and friendly nature had won her many friends.
“I watched her grow up and later realized that she is not only my sister, but everyone’s friend,” says Bang Chawich, a close friend of hers. “She is a very nice person, generous and down to earth.”
Her cousin Wej Chang agreed.
“She treats everybody the same,” Chang says.
Her attitude also earned her loyal customers especially around prom and homecoming time. She was featured in her high school newsletter for her creative designs. At this time she was also making more ‘hip’ versions of Somali and other traditional African outfits. She likes African fabrics, because they are colorful but she tries to incorporate different styles.
“Younger people want to wear something African, yet more contemporary,” she explains. “I bring the color of African fabric to American fashion.”
Two months into her last year of high school, Both discovered she was pregnant.
“My caseworker freaked out, but I was happy,” she recalls. “I didn’t have anyone before and I was happy to finally have someone.”
She focused on graduating the following June and got all her requirements done by March. In May, she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Quianna Chei.
Living conditions in her foster home were unbearable as her guardian incessantly smoked inside the house, unhealthy for baby Quianna, who had asthma. Consequently, Both would every once in a while leave and go to Bliek’s house for a couple of days, much to the chagrin of her guardian and caseworker. By the time she was eighteen she wanted out of foster care. Her caseworker wanted otherwise, fearing that if Both was on her own she would not go to college.
“Had I not fought so hard to prove that I was responsible enough to take care of myself and my baby, I still would be in foster care,” she says.
Having been on her own since August last year, Both admits that it hasn’t been easy, but she is much happier and extremely optimistic about her future. Already this year she has showcased her creations at two major African events, the Miss U.S.A., Minnesota preliminaries and Afrifest, a festival celebrating African culture, held in August.
“Afrifest generated intrigue,” she says excitedly. “The models did a good job and people wanted to see more. The guys were also asking for the men’s fashions.”
She enrolled in fashion classes at Minneapolis Community Technical College and hopes that after two years she will be able to go to New York’s Parsons School of Design.
She isn’t quite sure what to name her clothing line. Maybe she’ll call it Nyamal Both, or her father’s name, Both Dol. Maybe it will have both names. Why not?
But for now, this up-and-coming African fashionista is too busy preparing for the next showcase of her talent to worry about a name yet. On Saturday, Oct. 6, Mall of America will feature her collection as part of Pan-African Investment Summit’s Africa Day at the Mall of America.