Story and movie by MEGAN DOLLE
Maroufa Fnu sits at a sewing machine in an old pickle factory, stitching together leather and cotton fabric to create a variety of colorful designer bags.
Clutches, handbags, pouches and keepalls are only a few of the creations Fnu, 29, has in her repertoire. She had her own dressmaking business in Afghanistan before immigrating to the U.S. in 2012 to join her husband. She was familiar with sewing machines and retained some transferable skills, but admits that making bags is different than dresses.
Fnu appreciates the job and the ability to earn — and keep — her own money, something that wasn’t a possibility in Afghanistan due to cultural restrictions and norms affecting women. “I’m happier here,” she says about moving to the U.S.
Fnu works for Sarah Burroughs, owner of anne b designs, located in Salt Lake’s Granary Row. Fnu says she’s thrilled to be working for Burroughs, who designs and creates handbags that are sold online and at boutiques across the country, including Utah’s own Unhinged.
Burroughs initially decided she wanted to employ refugees and new immigrants after participating in a humanitarian trip with HELP International in summer 2013. She went to a village in Uganda and taught sewing techniques to the community.
“I came back, and I really liked teaching. I really liked how hard-working international makers were and that they were really skilled,” Burroughs says.
A friend of hers had worked with refugees in a similar industry. Burroughs reached out to her and soon got in contact with local refugee agencies like Catholic Community Services of Utah, Asian Association of Utah and International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City.
Erica Wood, program specialist at the Department of Workforce Services within the Refugee Services Office, played an instrumental role in helping Burroughs find potential employees.
Wood and representatives from other refugee agencies held initial meetings with Burroughs to ensure she understood refugee culture. They also reassured her that an entire community of organizations was there to support her and her future employees.
Additional services provided by Wood and her team included screening and assessing applicants prior to interviewing, identifying reliable workers, providing job readiness orientation and employment counseling.
“It’s services that we would provide to any employer as long as they seek us out,” Wood says.
Impressed by her organization and passion, Wood was excited to work with Burroughs and help connect her business to the community.
More professional partnerships with refugees
Interestingly, Wood says she has noticed an increasing number of employers in Utah who want to hire refugees. And, she says placement numbers have risen over the past couple of years.
Why the growing interest in this part of Salt Lake City’s population?
It may be due to educational efforts. Wood works alongside refugee agencies in Salt Lake City to inform the community about refugee culture. Wood says she believes her refugee customers are hardworking, loyal and simply looking for an opportunity to be engaged in their new community and to support their families. She hopes to help the community understand that refugees are a great population to work with.
Wood also says it might be due to the labor market.
“Employers are looking to expand their pool of candidates. DWS, as a whole, is dedicated to helping employers increase their workforce while assisting people from all walks of life as they enter or reenter the job market,” Wood says in an email interview.
Utah is also unique in its ability to provide two years of case management. In nearly every other state, this service is only provided to refugees for six to eight months.
Refugees who are resettled in Utah receive support for their family and children in health, employment, success in school and overall cohesion with their community. This extra help can make refugees even more attractive for prospective employers.
“With every refugee who is recently resettled, there’s really a team of people that’s working together to support that refugee individual and the family and their employment search and just them in their communities as well,” Wood says.
Bridging the cross-cultural gap
This team of individuals may be necessary when employees and employers are working to bridge cross-cultural differences.
Since July 2014, Burroughs has trained and hired two other employees in addition to Fnu. Her first employee, a seamster from Afghanistan, simply didn’t come into the shop one day.
Left with impending Christmas orders, Burroughs quickly trained and employed a seamstress from Uganda. But, after months of back-and-forth miscommunication and unrealized expectations, Burroughs once again began searching for a new employee.
“There’s really unfortunate situations where it’s not a good fit, where I learned a lot as a business owner that I need to set these expectations. And so I have,” Burroughs says.
Burroughs has continually changed the way she assesses and evaluates her employees. She realized the need for clear training and employment expectations for all future employees, regardless of their culture. But she has also encountered some complex situations. For example, one employee, perhaps used to bartering in her culture, wanted to haggle over her pay. Another expected Burroughs to deliver supplies to her.
Despite the learning curve, Burroughs is determined to continue employing international seamstresses. “Because they’re great workers,” she says.
Bethany Hyatt, public information officer with the Department of Workforce Services, wants to reassure potential employers that there are individuals ready and willing to help in circumstances like those Burroughs experienced.
“The program is set so that there’s an open dialogue, so that if there’s ever a question an employer has about an employee and expectations … Erica and her team can help answer those questions as specific circumstances change over time,” Hyatt says.
In July 2014, around the same time Burroughs launched a crowdfunding campaign, she began the process of searching for employees to help fulfill incoming orders.
She heard about a couple of sisters from Afghanistan who resettled in Utah. Burroughs began training the women shortly thereafter, but it ended up being too difficult for her to work with them due to their full schedules.
Months later, after training and hiring two other employees, Burroughs started to realize the disconnect between her and her Ugandan seamstress. One of the sisters from Afghanistan messaged Burroughs on Facebook around this same time. She said her friend, Maroufa Fnu, was interested in a job. She asked for Burroughs’s phone number to give to Fnu.
Instead of waiting for Burroughs to reach out to her, Fnu called her right after receiving the contact information.
“She did a lot of being proactive,” Burroughs says.
Armed with her new skills and expectations, Burroughs was confident this professional relationship would be successful.
After training for three weeks under Burroughs’s direction, Fnu was promoted to a part-time seamstress position with anne b designs. She helps Burroughs fill online and boutique orders by working 20 hours a week.
Fnu is Burroughs’s only paid employee at the moment. She has so far shown herself to be a dedicated and hard worker.
Burroughs hopes to employ more refugees as she expands. She has been grateful for the assistance from Erica Wood and her team at the Department of Workforce Services within the Refugee Services Office. They both continue to be confident about the future of anne b designs and its partnership with local refugees.
“It’s been a success story for each individual, for personal mile markers, some big successes, some small successes,” Wood says. “And Sarah has been a big part of that.”
Editor’s Note: Since this story was published, anne b designs relocated to 17 E. 400 South and Maroufa Fnu moved to Denver, Colorado for family reasons.