In addition to offering sewing classes and helping establish a community garden for new Americans, we have been building friendships through music, dance, crafts, conversation, outings, and gardening.
As Women Transcending Boundaries developed, there was a natural desire to reach out to women from other countries; consequently, volunteering at the InterFaith Works program for refugees at the Center for New Americans seemed like a perfect match. Refugee resettlement agencies such as InterFaith Works and Catholic Charities assist new arrivals with immediate needs of housing, food, clothing, English classes, and job readiness. We invite them to join us on outings, garden together, and participate in programs that are not dependent on language skills.
Beginning in 2004, Thursday afternoons would find fun-loving WTB sisters singing, dancing, knitting, crafting and building friendships with refugees from war-torn countries around the world. Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, Congo, and Somalia are but a few of the countries from which people fled horrific conditions and sought safety in refugee camps. Some lived in those camps for up to 20 years before being accepted for resettlement here.
We helped these new Americans develop their English skills with fun activities such as the Hokey Pokey dance: “Put your right hand in, put your right hand out, put your right hand in and shake it all about ….” We explained American traditions such as Halloween and Thanksgiving using picture books and seasonal crafts, and instructed women in practical skills for living in the United States. Even more important, we created a safe space for these women who had experienced such a long and difficult journey!
It was suggested that the women need a chance to earn extra money by making and selling handcrafts. InterFaith Works’ Center for New Americans had sewing machines available, and learning to use sewing machines would give them confidence in their ability to adapt to American life. Sewing classes began in 2010 and were immediately popular. Women who had never used a machine were eager to begin, and women who had sewn before coming to the U.S. wanted to learn “the American way.” Because of language challenges, volunteers work one-on-one with each student.
Additional classes evolved. A clay class taught crafting ceramic animals and jewelry pieces such as pendants and earrings. A knitting class focused on desired products, colors, quality, and style for specific markets, as well as using a variety of types of needles and yarns.
WTB has helped new Americans sell various items they make, including sewing, knitting, and ceramic goods, at fairs such as the Westcott Street festival and Plowshares, and on consignment at local retailers. The fairs helped inform the public about WTB and the quality and variety of the skills of the new Americans.
Challenges include language skills, awareness of American preferences for color and style, consistency of quality, and sales tax. We have advised them on the types of handcrafts that Americans are interested in buying as well as coaching them about quality control, pricing, and making tags. Initially, we staffed booths with Americans who could converse with potential buyers, and we collected and handled sales tax. We connected them with Hopeprint, a community organization that teached business development skills.