Story by EMILY RODRIGUEZ-VARGAS
Those looking for unique Asian or African handwork and artisanship in Utah need not look much farther. These homemade treasures and more are now available for sale through a nonprofit organization for artisan refugees recently organized in Salt Lake City, Pathways to Self-Sufficiency.
At the launching of the Global Artisans project of this organization on March 30, 2010, at the Salt Lake City Main Library, tables were lined up in a conference room displaying true cultural riches. Handcrafted jewelry, knitted clothing for young and old, homemade cards and other objects were portrayed and sold by artisans. Not only are these crafts practical, but they also show the potential of self-sufficiency of refugees.
As women and men craft these gifts for sale they are actively pursuing the chance to provide for themselves. At the same time they learn vital business skills. The artisans from many different countries presented and sold their work to attendees. Although not all of them spoke English fluently, they were all eager to use the language skills they did have to sell their merchandise. Some of them even worked on their various projects at the event, creating traditional woven baskets from Africa and knitted baby socks. As refugees, they can put their skills to work and offer local shoppers diverse and unique selections.
According to the Pathways’ Web site, a refugee is “any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality, and who is unable to return to, and is unable to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
The best part about this nonprofit program is that the artisans are able to make some profit without extensive business education and marketing skills. Pathways and its volunteers support the artisans in the promotion of merchandise. In a step-by-step process the artisans learn the craft, like sewing or knitting, with supervised assistance from volunteers, then they prepare it for sale on the Global Artisans‘s online store.
Once a week, men and women who want to make an extra income meet for a few hours of training. At the Pioneer Craft House they receive supervision by experts in the respective fields, and together they learn, talk and laugh. Many times the artisans bring in knitting work they’ve completed at home for a last check, or they ask questions about how to improve their craft.
This program also offers free entrepreneurial training at Salt Lake City Community College by a group of volunteers. The Global Artisans project can only accept a limited number of people at one time. Through these business courses, training by specialists and on-the-job help, the artisans are placed in the best position to know how a business works for the future.
Missy Larsen, a volunteer coordinator for Pathways, said the project helps to close the gap between other organizations and services. While there are various groups to support refugees, this specific opportunity not only helps them immediately, but also gives them long-lasting business knowledge and skills they can apply to supporting themselves later on.
Larsen said she first got involved in helping refugees when she supervised a service project for youth. But it turned into something she couldn’t walk away from.
“There are so many needs a refugee family has, from finding a job to needing to drive to appointments,” Larsen said. This program directly helps them to succeed and make some money to live on.
Ze Min Xiao, refugee services liaison for Salt Lake County, is a volunteer and one of the driving forces behind Pathways. She advocates helping refugees in Salt Lake City to become self-reliant, which she said is a great step forward. With the support from American Express in providing a grant for the market goods, the artisans can take home their profit, with only 10 percent of the proceeds going to cover overhead costs.
“We volunteer,” Xiao said of those who make Global Artisans happen. “We don’t keep a penny.”
Xiao explained how getting a job and being able to successfully integrate into the community is especially challenging for refugees. Learning to live in a new country can create emotional stress and people often encounter financial difficulties if they cannot find work because of language barriers.
Laxmi Timsina, 23, makes necklaces and bracelets. She’s also trying her hand at sewing artwork on pillowcases. She has been involved with Global Artisans since she arrived from a refugee camp in Nepal in 2009. She was practically raised in a refugee camp, she said, after her family left Bhutan because they were Hindu under a Moslem ruler. Although she already learned to speak English in the camps, she said it’s particularly difficult to find a job as a refugee. This is especially unsettling when working against a deadline.
“The government helps us for six months, but after that we are on our own,” she said. Although money is tight, she hopes that other family members can join her here in Utah soon.
Her friend Nirmala Kattel, 22, is also involved with making jewelry for Global Artisans. A Bhutanese herself, she said her family was forced to go against their religious beliefs when the King had Hindus persecuted. They then stayed in Nepalese refugee camps, where she spent most of her life. Kattel said it was a challenge to acclimate to life in Utah, especially in the first months. She lives with her husband and in-laws, and she is still getting used to the greasy and sweet American food.
“It takes time,” Xiao said. “Refugees have to learn English and learn how to operate in a new society.” That is where Global Artisans steps in to help out. The services teach those seeking an extra source of income to work for it and benefit from the promotion of the program. They also learn to start a business, Xiao said. “It’s all about empowering others.”