Artisans4Hope helps refugees living in Idaho acquire skills, livelihoods in a tough economy
Fabric, sewing machines, and women at work crowd tables in an airy space on Idaho Street.
The banter is a mix of Nepali, Uzbek, French and slowly, more and more English, as people pass tools back and forth, hold up finished items to be admired, or consult over a pattern.
Mastoureh Tashkin, a former refugee from Afghanistan, is among the women (and a few men) who come each week to be part of Artisans4Hope. The nonprofit, volunteer-run project has three missions: helping refugees learn English, integrating them into the community, and most pressing, helping them make money.
Tashkin, a tall, elegant woman, takes the bus Downtown from home, where she and her three children live with a sponsor. She shares the plight of many in the Valley, refugee and otherwise. She can’t find a job, andhas a family to support.
“Anything would be fine,” she said, “sewing, housekeeping.”
HARD TIMES IN TOWN
Between 1999 and 2009, about 5,500 refugees resettled in Boise, roughly 500 people per year.
Leslye Moore, executive director of the International Rescue Committee, said that not long ago, when the local economy was flush, 85 percent of the newly arrived were employed and self-sufficient within three to five months.
“But now we’ve started placing people in jobs outside Boise because there have been so many layoffs here,” Moore said.
People who lost jobs at companies like Micron and Hewlett-Packard are getting the jobs that refugees would have taken in the past.
The IRC, spreading beyond the Treasure Valley, has placed newly arrived refugees in jobs in food processing in towns like Fruitland, Ontario and Boardman, Ore.
Moore said that while the number of refugees coming to the U.S. has not slowed, the three local resettlement agencies – the IRC, the Agency for New Americans and World Relief – are taking in 25 percent fewer refugees than last year because of the local job situation.
“That means people are going to another state, and the economy is hitting hard everywhere,” Moore said. The one exception, she added, is Middle America, where there are still jobs in food production, like corn processing and meat packing. Local agencies are focusing on agriculture, dairy, and home care fields as possible job sources.
USING THE SKILLS SHE ARRIVED WITH
Artisans4Hope sells items handmade by refugees (mostly from donated materials) at local events, and through Dunia Marketplace in Hyde Park and private home parties.
Volunteers help refugees hone their creative skills and come up with products like baby hats and felted purses that will appeal to local shoppers. And retired teachers teach English, with lessons integrated into work sessions.
One of the group’s founders, Joan Cloonan, who is retired from Simplot Co. and now teaches knitting to refugee participants, said the project has brought in $12,000 so far. Ninety percent of that goes back to the craftspeople. The remaining 10 percent buys thread, knitting needles, and other supplies. About 25 former refugees are now working with the program, assisted by 10 regular volunteers.
The group has helped Tashkin use sewing skills she learned as a teenager. She’s made $700 so far, which is a start for buying school supplies, clothing and more.
She lived in a refugee camp in Afghanistan for three years before coming to the United States. Tashkin speaks four languages, including the English she’s refined over the past 10 months in the U.S. She spent a year studying graphic arts at a university in Afghanistan.
Tashkin’s work and that of other new Idahoans from places like Congo and Bhutan will be part of a First Thursday open house at the Idaho Street work space.
In keeping with the spirit of volunteerism, the space is donated by the consulting firm next door.
A TOUGH TRANSITION TO SELF-RELIANCE
Refugees are eligible for cash assistance for the first eight months they’re in the United States. If they haven’t found a job by then, agency heads like Moore piece together a patchwork of assistance from private and public sources. Local officials have had to do this more and more in recent months.
Refugees must repay the cost of their travel to the U.S. The upside of this is that repaying that loan establishes their credit. The downside is that it’s another burden for a jobless person.
Christina Bruce-Bennion, director of the Agency for New Americans, said Artisans4Hope is one example of community efforts to generate income for people, as well as enhance the local cultural fabric.
The three local refugee agencies welcome different avenues to “keep people afloat,” Bruce-Bennion said, and to fight the isolation that is an issue for refugees because of profound language and cultural differences, as well as the trauma many have experienced.
Artisans4Hope founder Hildy Ayer, a retired director of the Lee Pesky Learning Center, said the project was inspired in part by disturbing comments she heard in the community from people critical of refugees, and a screening of the film, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” about women fighting for peace in Liberia.
That film got her, Cloonan, and others talking about using their professional and artistic talents to help. Then, there was her own collection of fabric, and a desire to put it to use.
Artisans4Hope started modestly last summer with a $3,000 Smart Women Grant from Zions Bank, $2,000 in public donations and pounds of fabric and yarn.
When Ayer handed out checks recently to those who had sold items, everyone clapped.
“Refuge is more than physical safety,” Ayer said. “It’s hope, citizenry, understanding and welcome.”
Anna Webb: 377-6431