anne b designs creates employment for Utah refugees and immigrants

Story and movie by MEGAN DOLLE

See the behind-the-scenes action in anne b design’s shop.


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.

Meeting Maroufa

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.

Salt Lake County faces refugee-housing crisis

by MATT BERGSTROM

At the end of 2007, Salt Lake County Community Resources and Development commissioned a report on the housing situation for refugees within the county. The report, published in December 2007 by Wikstrom Economic and Planning Consultants Inc., revealed a dire situation.

According to the report, Salt Lake is what is known as a “highly-impacted community.” When compared to other counties of relatively similar size, Salt Lake has resettled a disproportionately large share of refugees.

The report gives a number of reasons for this discrepancy. Refugees tend to be very successful here due to Salt Lake’s constantly expanding job market. Simply put, more jobs means the county needs more people to fill them.

Perhaps the main reason is the family-friendly atmosphere of the city. Many refugees who come to the U.S. have large families, of which Salt Lake is traditionally more accepting. Almost one-fourth of the families resettled in Salt Lake in 2007 had 5 or more people in them; with some having as many as 11.

Resettling large families in Salt Lake also leads to large numbers of secondary resettlements. This is when a person, or group of people, decides to relocate to a city to be closer to family after having already been resettled in another part of the country.

But with a steadily growing job market and a near-constant stream of new residents the vacancy rates in apartments in Salt Lake is low. And when vacancy rates are low, rent tends to go up. This is especially true of larger units that are needed to house the larger families being drawn here.

According to the Wikstrom report, an annual income of more than $24,000 per year is required to afford an average priced, one-bedroom apartment in Salt Lake. The average refugee works a minimum wage job and earns about half that amount. This means multiple earners are needed in the home just to afford the cheapest possible option.

Adaptation to apartment life is another housing problem facing refugees. Many who come to the U.S. are coming from refugee camps in Africa or Asia, and often have never lived anywhere else. These camps are not always equipped with the modern conveniences of a Salt Lake apartment.

“Sometimes you have to teach people how to use a light switch,” said Patrick Poulin, resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake. He and his caseworkers assist refugees assimilating to their new surroundings.

“Imagine having to teach someone that, then have to teach them about a lease, or paying utilities,” he said.

This concern resonates with other refugee care organizations. At a recent refugee service provider network meeting, held by the Utah Department of Workforce Services, housing problems ranging from cooking in apartments with open flames to a bedbug infestation were discussed.

Situations like these make landlords wary of allowing other refugees to rent their units in the future.

Fortunately, local government has not turned a blind eye to the situation. Early in 2008, the Department of Workforce Services opened the Refugee Services Office. It was created with the intent of coordinating the many agencies and nonprofit organizations that work to help refugees in and around Salt Lake.

Gerald Brown, the director of the Refugee Services Office, feels the number of refugees coming to Salt Lake is not going to slow down any time soon. “People will not stop coming here as long as they can get here what they can’t get there,” Brown said.

Salt Lake City has also begun to explore other solutions for the housing crisis. In January 2008, just after the Wikstrom report was released, the Community Resources and Development division of the Utah Department of Human Services assembled a committee to find a solution. The committee, comprised of refugee service caregivers and local business owners, came up with an idea to build temporary housing specifically designed for recently resettled refugees.

The facility, which is being referred to as “welcome housing,” would not only be a place for refugees to live for the first year or two in America, but would also provide onsite casework assistance with a goal of eventual acculturation. This staff would include people to help teach refugees the basics of apartment living in a safe atmosphere where they can develop these skills before having to find permanent housing on their own.

The projected 50-unit project is still far from fruition, said Dan Lofgren, president and CEO of Cowboy Partners, a real estate development and property management company based in Holladay. Lofgren is also a member of the state housing committee.

Until somebody steps up with funding for the project, he said it would never be anything more than an idea. But even money won’t permanently fix the problem.

“There aren’t resources available to build our way out of this,” he said.

The Wikstrom report came to a similar conclusion. According to the report, there needs to be better training to teach refugees good renter practices. Availability of housing is not a panacea for the rest of a refugee’s life as a U.S. resident.

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.”