by Debby Cheng
(This article originally appeared on International Examiner and has been reprinted under license.)
Refugee Artisan Initiative (RAI) is a women-centered organization that aims to encourage refugee women to use their craft skills to contribute to their families and communities.
RAI executive director Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman was inspired by her grandmother who raised Tung-Edelman’s mother and uncle sewing clothes. Tung-Edelman noticed that refugee women, in the United States in particular, have the highest unemployment rate among all other communities, and she felt it was time for her to give back to the community after being in the country for more than three decades.
In 2019, only 40% of refugee women in the United States were employed, while refugee women’s participation rate in the global labor force was just 6%.
As an immigrant from Taiwan, Tung-Edelman understood what refugee women had to go through in terms of learning a new language and getting an education. With RAI, she hoped to create more opportunities for women who have the same skills as her grandmother to be able to use their skills to provide financial support for their families.
“Often people have the impression that refugees come here [the U.S.] because they’re desperate, which is true, but other times they’re here because they want us to help them not knowing what they could bring,” Tung-Edelman said.
She said all refugees “have so much potential.”
“These people have gone through so much trauma and determination. I think they are sufficient as they already are. So why not look at what strengths they arrive with and try to help them build a new life here with their strength? ” she says.
Tung-Edelman believes that the United States’ action in welcoming refugees will benefit the country and its economy because refugees often want to integrate, work and assimilate into the local culture. Being an immigrant herself, she hopes to find a way to connect with refugee communities.
Tung-Edelman described RAI as a women’s empowerment program. She said the standard job guide isn’t suitable for women who have multiple children, don’t speak English, can’t drive and don’t have the educational skills most companies are looking for.
“There are too many barriers for refugee women to enter our regular employment pathway,” she said. “So instead of focusing on their downsides, we look at what they already have – the skills and try to develop them.”
Tung-Edelman said RAI realizes the “hurdles”. They try to minimize them and offer hybrid training to female refugee workers. Not only do they show sewing videos, but they also visit refugees in person. RAI also provides refugee women with machine training and market access.
“Refugees come to RAI and learn with other women,” she said. “We have created communities for these women to come to feel safe and fulfilled so they can use their skills to provide an income for their families.
RAI also emphasizes fairness. The organization ensures that it addresses the most common problems of the refugee women community, namely unemployment and underemployment. RAI aims to create more accessible employment opportunities for refugee women, enabling them to use their skills to earn a living wage.
RAI works with refugees referred by agencies around the world. He recently started working with a significant number of refugee applications from Afghanistan.
“People from different parts of the world come to Seattle and sew. Especially Afghan women, it’s something they know well – sewing and caring for their children,” Tung-Edelman said. “Sewing is a universal language.”
She also spoke about the cultural barriers faced by refugee women from Muslim communities and families. In Muslim families, women can be expected to stay at home, which makes it difficult to get a job in the United States. RAI recognizes this and focuses on the flexibility of their work.
“We look at their skills and challenge them to make something simple, like towels. And then they work their way into making medical scrubs,” Tung-Edelman said. “If they just wanted to do more general basic sewing, which is fine, but if they want to support their families using their skills, we should try to give them opportunities.”
She mentioned an inspiring story of a woman artisan from the organization who is from Afghanistan. She has five children and she cannot work outside her home. She is currently one of RAI’s most productive members. She has a sewing room in her house where she can work. After nine months of working with the organization, she bought her husband a better car to use as an Uber driver.
Many products made by the craftswomen will be sold under the RAI brand. Occasionally, the organization also collaborates with other brands like Tommy Bahama. They emphasize sustainability by taking their fabric scraps and turning them into scrunchies or other products, which the brand will give away to their customers. They also work with Starbucks by turning their bags of coffee beans into tote bags.
RAI also values the needs of the community. Throughout the pandemic, they have turned donated and used fabric into 80,000 masks. During the cold winter, they raised funds to make over a few thousand free hats and stoves, ensuring the homeless could stay warm and safe.
“We use the ‘triangular impact’. Our goal is to hire 100 refugee women and provide them with training and work while diverting the sales tax rate, and the third stage of our triangular impact is to meet the needs of the community,” said Tung- Edelman.
📸 The featured image: Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman at the Be Bold Now event on May 11, 2022 at Seattle City Hall. (Photo: Debby Cheng)
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