Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are. -Bertolt Brecht
If your last personal encounter with the Community Cloth was more than six months ago, you might not recognize us. We are a changed organization, from top to bottom. We’ve expanded our volunteer base (a volunteer info session was held this past Wednesday at the Baker Ripley Center Neighborhood Center); we’ve expanded our retail partnerships (you can now buy Karenni scarves at Kuhl Linscomb and Muse Boutique, along with the Houston Museum of Natural Science); we’ve regenerated our artisan line-up (this one needs a bit more explanation).
As Krista mentioned last week, Narmaya, Lachi and Radhika recently began working together in a new setting—at a garment shop in Houston. While obtaining a textile-related job (and working with friends) is serendipitous, employment is hardly a novelty among Cloth talent. In our nearly two years (two years!) as an organization, almost all of the original artisans have found jobs. In order to stem camaraderie, we divided the Bhutanese knitters into small groups based on their apartment locations. Now, we have lost the majority of an apartment community to full-time jobs and virtually all of the faces in the Karenni workshop are new.
Saying goodbye to artisans this way is hardly bittersweet; for us, there is no greater excitement than knowing that one of the women is earning a better living. To be sure, the Cloth was never about providing primary income. We always intended the sales to supplement meager incomes, never to be the sole support for a family. But for many, the thirty dollars handed to them in an Amegy Bank envelope meant survival. It paid for another supply of groceries, or it paid the water bill; or it was tucked away, the start of a miniscule savings account. But that cannot compare to the paychecks they bring home now. Now, they can move out of dangerous, crumbling apartments into newer, safer complexes. They can provide more support to their families still lingering in the camps.
Those that stay take on the welcomed role of mentor (and many times translator). Narmaya was and is the perfect example of this. She was not just one of the original members of the Community Cloth, she predated it, participating in a knitting group organized by a non-profit I worked for. Genial, hospitable and possessor of the sweetest smile, she was a cornerstone of our burgeoning enterprise. As many of her colleagues left for work, she—and others—became the old salts to the newest participants, helping explain procedures. One of the women she took in was Radhika, her neighbor. Needing extra money, she talked often with Narmaya and fellow artisan Pabitra to understand the workings of the Cloth and to find a way to join. She even tagged along on yarn-buying excursions, using her own money so that on the day she officially joined the Cloth, she would have items to sell. Before she was even a participant of the Cloth, she looked to Narmaya as a guide. I’m thrilled that they both now work alongside each other, and I’m unspeakably proud of Narmaya.
The Community Cloth is not the last step for the refugee women that bless us with their talents. We are not the end of the journey. We are the next step. Sometimes the first step. But never the last.
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” Pericles
Little changes occur in our lives each and every day. Just recently I was informed that three of the ladies in my artisan knitting group, Narmaya, Lachi and Rhadika, have gained full time employment! This came as a welcomed surprise, especially since the jobs the women secured are still related to textiles. Another positive note is that they get to work together and further build their friendships with one another. They are such industrious artisans and really put their hearts into their work. I will miss being able to see them as frequently as before, but can hear in their voices that they are happy with this opportunity to further support their families.
Another bit of news that was shared is that one of their daughters was getting married! Narmaya’s oldest daughter had her wedding about two weeks ago. She had often acted as a translator for me. I was thinking about her and all of the changes she must be going through: moving out of her family’s home, becoming a wife, and looking toward her new future. She, too, is determined to succeed and has done well in school and in learning English, and I know she will continue to thrive. The visits where she and her younger sisters were present were always filled with laughter and liveliness.
One particular afternoon as she was passing out bowls of fragrant kheer or coconut rice pudding, I shared some family photos with the girls. Personally being far from my immediate family, I remember the sweetness of the hearty dessert of rice, milk and spices, and the comfort that conversations with sisters can bring. Family, traditions and ceremonies, especially of marriage, are significant in all cultures and catching a glimpse of this particular close-knit family was a treat.
Many of The Community Cloth artisans move on from solely knitting and weaving items to sell through the program, to working full-time jobs around Houston. A number of the women continue their craft and their participation in the program to supplement their incomes, which we are pleased they choose to do. These talented women are able to balance so much with preserving their cultures, nurturing their families, succeeding in their jobs and honing their crafts. They are so easy to admire! Some of the artisans become quite busy with new jobs, but without these transitions, the opportunity for new artisans to benefit from The Community Cloth program would not necessarily occur. These changes take place for a reason and everyone seems to adapt. The importance of relationships is what remains the most important in our lives.
If you would also like to make some coconut rice pudding, click here for a recipe.