Creating opportunities for artisans

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.

Photo courtesy of Wanda Gayle

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.”

Photo by Emily Rodriguez-Vargas

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.

The artisans have a supervisor to help improve their sewing and knitting. Photo by Emily Rodriguez-Vargas

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.

Photo courtesy of Wanda Gayle

“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.

Participants are working on necklaces, pillow cases and jewelry. Photo by Emily Rodriguez-Vargas

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.”

Bhutanese celebrate holiday, new life in SLC

Story and photos by MATT BERGSTROM

Thursday, Oct. 9, was an important day for Hindus around the world. It was the celebration of Dashera, the victory of the goddess Durga over the demons who stood in the gods’ way during creation.

For a group of Bhutanese refugees in Salt Lake City, it was also a celebration of a different victory.

Thursday was the first time the small Bhutanese community in Salt Lake City has officially gathered since refugees began arriving in the city in April 2008. The gathering was held at the Taj India restaurant at 4515 S. 900 East.

Bhutanese celebration

Bhutanese celebration

For nearly 20 years, these families had been living in refugee camps in Nepal. Most of that time the Bhutanese coexisted peacefully with their Nepali hosts. For the past few years, tense relations between China and Tibet have driven more refugees into Nepal. This flood of new arrivals pushed the Nepali government to its breaking point, prompting officials to make an appeal to the United Nations for help. The U.N. decided to resettle the Bhutanese who had long been without a home of their own.

Nearly 250 Bhutanese have resettled in Salt Lake since April. Among them are many members of the Dulal family.

Biren Dulal, 26, was only 8 years old when his life was uprooted and he moved with his family from his home in Bhutan to a camp in southeast Nepal. Today he barely remembers why he had to leave his home. He thinks it had something to do with the Buddhist government wanting Hindus to convert in the interest of national identity.

The actual reason seems to still be in dispute. According to the Web site for Human Rights Watch, the exodus was based on ethnic reasons rather than religious ones. The government of Bhutan in the late 1990s was interested in establishing a firmer national identity. The dispute is whether ethnic Nepalese in Bhutan chose to leave or were forced out by the government.

Regardless of the reason for leaving, Biren said life in the camp was difficult, but not unbearable.

Refugees were seldom allowed to leave. They had their own schools and shops and most of their basic needs were met. However, under certain circumstances, refugees could get permission to live outside the camp.

Biren left the camp for the first time at 18 years old to attend Kalimpong College in eastern India. After earning his bachelor’s degree he went to Katmandu to teach middle school science. A short time later he decided to return to the camp where most of his family still lived to continue his teaching there.

Soon after, members of Biren’s family began being resettled in the U.S. He decided it would be best if he joined them.

Biren Dulal arrived in San Diego on June 21, 2008. He had been sent to live with a brother and sister who had already been resettled there. Biren did not care for San Diego, but is too polite to say why.

Biren Dulal at the celebration.

Biren Dulal at the celebration.

He was then allowed to join the rest of his other brothers and sisters in Salt Lake City. The former teacher now divides his time between his job as an interpreter for the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake, the nonprofit group that helped resettle him, and his volunteer work teaching English to other Bhutanese in town.

Ultimately he would like to get back to teaching science.

Travis Zirker, an IRC caseworker for many members of the Dulal family, said getting back to work is a common desire. A few of Biren’s brothers also were teachers in Nepal before coming to America.

One of those brothers is Ghana Dulal, who Zirker said has become a sort of unofficial community leader.

In the small Indian restaurant packed on an unseasonably warm autumn afternoon with almost 200 Bhutanese refugees, guests from various resettlement organizations and members of the press, Ghana Dulal offered a speech of gratitude and, in a small way, victory.

He talked of their hardships while encamped in Nepal and of the warnings they received from friends before leaving. They were told they would not be allowed to be Hindus in America.

In the end, Ghana Dulal summed up what all the Bhutanese were feeling, and what those who have not been there could not understand, when he said, “We are no longer refugees. We are free people.”

Gerald Brown: Fighting for those who cannot fight back

by REED NELSON

The man is happier than any man should rightfully be for a 7:30 a.m. meeting, but in his line of work, this is the least stressful part of his day. Donned in a bow tie, thick-rimmed glasses with Coke-bottle lenses, and topsiders, and for a man in his position, he looks the part.

He deals with grants (or lack thereof), crime (both with clients and against), family issues (his and his clients), resettlements, and the acclimation of oppressed people in a foreign land.

His name is Gerald Brown, 57, and for the better part of three decades, he has been working with refugees in locations such as New York City and Houston before arriving in Salt Lake City in 2002.

Now, as the Director of Refugee Services, in the Utah Department of Workforce Services, Brown is under constant pressure from the weight of two separate worlds. He must keep his budget in line, because he is a government employee. And he must also keep the refugees he helps happy, healthy and in tune, because he knows they are the ones who can get lost in the shuffle.

“We provide eight months of Medical service and cash assistance for those who qualify,” Brown said with a hint of empathy, ” the problem with Utah is a lot of time there is no one to look after them after that.”

Brown began his work with refugees in Houston for four years, then continued his work in the melting pot that is New York City. He understands that it was a good place, if not the most mundane, to earn his stripes. He was thrown into the middle of the daily struggle that is resettlement with a group of Cambodian refugees.

“Once I began to learn to communicate with them I could plant a seed,” Brown said, “and once the seed is planted, it can be enforced to the nth degree.”

He ran a resettlement house for 10 years in New York, and that led him to a job as a political asylum officer in Kansas in 1998. (Political asylum differs from refugee status, only because asylum deals exclusively with political conflict and oppression. A refugee is oppressed from any and all angles.)

After Kansas, Brown moved to Salt Lake to bolster the resettlement program, before ending up with the Utah Department of Workforce Services

“When I came here, we had one guy in a cubicle, now we have six,” Brown said with a grin. And his grin is genuine, because when he works with such a limited, but demanding, clientele, he needs all the sure handed help he can get.

Now he has a volunteer training program in place, and help, at least with a face, has arrived. His caseworkers are now fully trained, and now they can manage each responsibly and compassionately. The training program is essential, Brown said, especially when handling home visits with refugees.

“Volunteers untrained can cause more trouble they help most of the time,” Brown said. Which is why his case workers are equipped not only to handle face to face interaction with their clients, but the behind the scenes business as well.

Those volunteers have now taken on a heavy load of individual cases. The case management process requires the caseworkers to be fully versed in the refugees’ rights; otherwise a lot of necessary services are not readily available. It is Brown’s job to make sure his workers can access those services.

Brown understands that he is fighting an uphill battle, but the battle far from over. He has reached members of the Salt Lake community indirectly, which is a testament to his influence. Some do not even know who to see when they first arrive.

“My family never knew where to go, and I am still the only English speaking member of my family,” said Sean Keranovic, a Salt Lake Community College student originally from Prijedor, Bosnia. “Our neighbors got in touch with a case worker back in 2002, and their transition has been made much easier. No late bills, no missed school, and very little confusion.”

So while Brown deals with his 11-year-old son (“He wants to be a journalist,” Brown said with a chuckle) and his family life, he is always making sure that no case is left untouched.

Society has the propensity to complicate things, and complication can often bury the unprepared. Gerald Brown deals with people who have had few choices in life, and makes sure they don’t slip all the way through the cracks. And despite the long hours, he still manages to keep a broad smile on his face.

“Man, I’ve had the privilege to know the world,” Brown said, with the same smile adorning his face, directed more to himself than anyone in particular. “To learn [about people from other countries] is like another college degree free of charge. Cool.”