Nepalis work hard to keep their culture alive in Utah

Story and photo by KENDRA WILMARTH

Imagine you are in a store. Casually running your hands along various items, looking for something that grabs your attention. Wishing you could find apparent character in a product, something different from the same old mass-produced item you saw at your neighbor’s house on Tuesday. For Salt Lake County residents, stores are starting to fill their shelves with something a little more unique.

Artisans from all over the world are working hard right here in Salt Lake City to provide the local consumer with products such as gloves, necklaces, scarves, blankets and handbags.

Many of these artists are refugees who have come from countries around the globe, such as Somalia, Burma and Nepal. They left their homes due to the dangers of war and moved to refugee camps. Now they have found refuge here in Utah.

The Global Artisans program was created by Salt Lake County to assist these refugees in countless ways and to also help ease their transition to a new way of life. The program was founded in 2008 and is a division of the Pathways to Self Sufficiency project. Ze Min Xiao, refugee services liaison for Salt Lake County, said it was set up as a way to address the gap in the refugee community.

“There is a large population of refugees who are not being engaged,” Xiao said. “This program provides them with the opportunity to get together in a safe place, keep their traditions alive and earn supplemental income for their family and also at the same time gives them the opportunity to be encouraged and empowered to achieve more.”

One of the largest groups seeking refuge here in Utah are the Bhutanese from Nepal. After 18 years of being in camps these refugees have found freedom in Salt Lake City. Now, these individuals are provided the opportunity to capitalize on their own skills by taking part in the Global Artisans program.

Xiao said around 80 participants are enrolled in this program and more than half of them are Nepali refugees. They meet a couple times (sometimes more) per week to knit and sew.

When crafts are complete, artisans have the opportunity to sell their products to the Global Artisans program for an estimated $32,000 a year. However, program participants can also independently sell their own products if they wish to do so.

“It’s teaching them that they can take their culture and make some good of it,” said Linda Oda, director of Asian Affairs.

Oda calls Utah the “welcoming state” because of the state’s willingness to allow refugees to settle within its borders. According to the State of Utah Refugee Services Office an estimated 1,000 refugees have resettled in Utah just in 2010 alone.

Several stores around Salt Lake County sell Global Artisan products, including Little America Boutique, Dancing Queen and Jolley’s Pharmacy. Soon BYU and the University of Utah’s bookstores will  carry their goods. Many of the artisans are also selling their products on Overstock.com. Xiao says the program is in the process of finding new businesses to carry their handcrafted items. They hope to add another 10 stores to the list by the end of 2010.

Refugees meet in the Pioneer Craft House in South Salt Lake, where they are given the proper instruments to fashion various crafts. This equipment is financed through a grant given to the program from American Express.

“This generous grant allows us to purchase supplies, equipment, hire a part-time coordinator and also for marketing purposes,” Xiao said.

Heidi Ferguson is the project coordinator of Global Artisans. Ferguson meets regularly with the program participants. She said most of the individuals in the program already possess the talent and ability to knit and sew and that her job is to help train refugees in the basics of business and teach them new ways to improve their craft.

“All of these refugees are very talented and willing to work hard,” Ferguson said. “They feel comfortable here in Utah, and are glad they can add a little more to the community that has given them a safe place to live.”