April 16, 2010

My Refugee Sewing Class featured in NY Times

Zahra Jambir, an immigrant from Somalia, works in a sewing class run by a Chicago-based refugee resettlement organization.
Published: April 15, 2010

Agencies Are Stretched in Efforts to Aid Refugees

The hum of sewing machines echoed through the basement of the United Church of Rogers Park on a recent Friday morning. Refugee women from Bhutan, Iraq, Myanmar, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia sat at the machines, exchanging smiles and nods, but few words.

Mostly they pointed and motioned. Myanmar needed scissors from Ethiopia. Bhutan needed help from Iraq to thread her machine. Eritrea was having trouble with her bobbin. Could Ethiopia help? Yes, of course. It’s nice to know they are not completely alone, the women said, even if the verbal exchange is difficult.

“We want the women to feel empowered while gaining skills that they can use,” said Melineh Kano, the program director of Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries, the Chicago-based refugee resettlement organization responsible for the weekly class. What started as one day a week has now grown to three, attended by an average of 15 women — both the agency’s clients and others — who want to sew and socialize.

Women comprise more than half of all refugees worldwide, and classes like the one in Rogers Park offer access to a social and skill-building environment, said Helen Sweitzer, director of the women’s programs at the interfaith ministries. All of the machines and material are donated, a necessity at a time when state budget cuts are prompting major reductions in taxpayer financing of resettlement programs.

Even as budgets are slashed, arrivals are surging. Since 2003, refugee arrivals in Illinois have increased 175 percent, and the number of countries sending refugees has gone to 60 from 31. Iraqi refugees, according to the United States Office of Refugee Resettlement, went from zero to 1,298 from 2006 to 2009, making Chicago home to the second-largest Iraqi population in the country after Detroit.

Illinois and nine other states received more than half of all incoming refugees to the United States in 2008, the last year for which data is available. Yet severe cuts in financing —Illinois will receive $2.8 million in 2010 for resettlement services, down from $7.5 million in 2000 — have strained the budgets of local resettlement agencies.

What was once a public and private partnership has become increasingly private, said Ed Silverman, who directs the Illinois Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Services.

Resettlement agencies are trying to keep up with the growing diversity of the refugee population with culturally appropriate counseling, translation and other services. Greg Wangerin, the interfaith ministries’ executive director, said the agency resettled refugees from 44 countries in 2008, its busiest year to date. But tight budgets forced it to stop taking “free cases,” those that are not family reunifications, he said.

“We want nothing more than to resettle refugees,” Mr. Wangerin said. “But we don’t want to do it sloppily.”

Last fall, the organization suspended its women’s sewing cooperative, an extension of the class that allowed women to sell their goods and receive 50 percent of the profits.

“We don’t have the additional funds to buy nicer fabric, pay the teacher for an extra day and rent out booths at different fairs to sell the items,” Ms. Sweitzer said.

The resettlement agencies got some relief in January when the United States State Department increased a one-time stipend for food, clothing and shelter to between $900 and $1,100 from $450. But the money is allotted for individuals and cannot be applied to services like the sewing class.

Tulasa Biswa, 30, a refugee from Bhutan who arrived 13 months ago with her husband and 4-year-old son, attends the class regularly. Ms. Biswa was 12 when her family left Bhutan in the back of a truck, a week after the government told the country’s ethnic Nepalese that they were no longer welcome. The government revoked their citizenship, forcing them over the border to Nepal and into a refugee camp that Ms. Biswa called home for the next 18 years.

“It was a miserable life,” Ms. Biswa said. High winds periodically tore through the camp, forcing her family to huddle in the middle of its bamboo hut and hold down the roof with a battered rope.

“I would pray to God that the wind would not take away our home,” she said, shaking her head.

Sitting in her neat apartment furnished with couches and chairs covered with brightly colored seat covers and crocheted doilies she has made, Ms. Biswa recalled her family’s arrival in Chicago in February 2009, the coldest winter in more than a decade. No one in the family had a proper coat, and it was the first time they had seen snow. When they entered their Rogers Park apartment, set up by the Ethiopian Community Association, it had only kitchenware and a single bed. Twice a day for the next two months, she and her husband went out looking for furniture left out for trash collection.

“We didn’t have money, and we had an empty house,” Ms. Biswa said.

Many of the women in the sewing group live in the diverse neighborhood of Rogers Park. Some social service agencies are able to secure refugee apartments with little more than a verbal agreement with landlords and a bit of good faith. “How can you say ‘I have this imaginary family coming in two weeks and we need an apartment with no lease?’ ” Ms. Kano said. “They must trust us.”

Back in the church’s sewing room, women milled about asking questions and socializing. Dei Thluai, from Myanmar, barely speaks a word of English, but with the help of universal hand gestures and a few women who act as translators, she has become a popular fixture in the class. In another corner, Sarah Araya, from Eritrea, asked for help with a pair of gauzy curtains from Tafesech Feyissa, an Ethiopian with luminous brown skin and a scarification tattoo on her forehead.

“We can talk because we speak the same language,” Ms. Araya said.

Across the room, Taggrid Albosherif, 36, worked on a blanket for summer picnics with her family. Ms. Albosherif came to Chicago from Iraq in 1997 to be reunited with her husband. In 2005 he went back to Iraq, leaving her and their four children behind. He has been missing for four years and six months.

“He’s dead — he’s kidnapped,” Ms. Albosherif said without emotion.

Five months ago, she was laid off from her job as a cashier, an increasingly common experience among refugees that experts said causes them to depend more on agencies, even as their resources dwindle.

She stopped working on her picnic blanket and took a moment to explain why the class is an important fixture in her life.

“I enjoy my time here; I love doing things for my family,” said Ms. Albosherif, who hopes to help refugees and abused women by working at an organization like the Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries. “It was my dream to come to America. Some days that dream comes true. Some days it’s really tough.”

New York Times original article


Teresa said...

That's really cool....I know you'd told me about it, but I love seeing what you meant. So many reasons to be proud of you!

Thanks for sharing it with us. Next up, Washington DC! Miss you and see you soon.

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