A Summer of Surprises

“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.


What Price Democracy?

As I sat there looking out on the roomful of faces who attended last week’s screen filming event, benefiting The ONE Foundation, and featuring “This is NOT Democracy”, I felt an air of interconnectedness among the diverse pool of attendees there: from a few tables of our Karenni Burmese weavers and friends, to dedicated staff of local refugee resettlement agencies, to supporters of The ONE Foundation and The Community Cloth.

The evening opened up with the documentary, which offered a powerful look into the struggles for democracy in Burma and the horrific conditions the people of Burma are enduring. Augmenting the film was a panel consisting of the filmmaker and two local refugee community leaders. They discussed the journey of refugees from around the world: from the issues and turmoil that force them to flee their homelands to begin with, to their lives in limbo in refugee camps, to their new, free lives here in the US.

Bhadra Rai represented the Bhutanese Nepali refugee community, and is the Founder and Director of the Bhutanese Community of Houston. He was born in Bhutan and in 1993 went to Nepal as a refugee, fleeing ethnic persecution. In 2008, he came to Houston, and when he arrived, he saw the many needs of his fellow refugees, and “had a heart to serve them”, so he started a church the following year.  While establishing the Church, Bhadra was also forming the Bhutanese Community of Houston, a self-help community association. He recently was one of only a handful of refugee leaders in the US who received a scholarship to attend and speak at the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s 2010 National Consultation in Washington DC. He works at the Hilton Hotel, attends classes at Houston Community College.

John Glenn (yes, named after the astronaut), represented the Burmese refugee community. He himself is a forcibly displaced Burmese refugee who began his involvement in political activities in 1988 when he became a member of the All Burma Federation of Students’ Union. Because of his political activities, John was arrested and imprisoned for six years with hard labor. He fled to the Thai-Burma border, and in 2006 he entered the Nupo refugee camp near Mae Sot, Thailand.  In 2009, he was granted resettlement to the US and settled in Houston.  He continues his service to the Burmese community by forming the Refugee Community Empowerment Association (RCEA), and currently works with the YMCA International branch which offers refugee resettlement services.

Both Bhadra and John are incredible leaders within the refugee community, and an inspiration to me – and I don’t know when they have time to sleep, given their work, educational, family and community obligations! What’s more amazing is their relentless pursuit of a better life, not only for their own families and friends in Houston, but for their fellow countrymen and women still overseas. Bhadra’s group recently collected and sent over $1,000 to help refugees in Nepal, after two large fires broke out in the camps last year; meanwhile, John still supports the Nupo refugee camp school in Thailand.

Rounding out the panel was filmmaker and photographer, Carey Russell, a native to Texas.  His photography has earned recognition and awards and he has twice exhibited at our very own Houston FotoFest. Carey’s also worked with renowned director Terrence Malick (“Badlands,” “Days of Heaven,” “The Thin Red Line,” “The New World”, “Tree of Life.”). He founded Kestral Media, a production company, in order to promote issues of environmental sustainability and human rights. He’s worked with The Nature Conservancy, the US Forest Service and the Khangai Nuruu National Park of Mongolia, which introduced him to the beauty and heartache of Asia, and fueled a commitment to Burma and Tibet, including a push to bring needed mental health services to those suffering from trauma and torture.

Refugees in Houston helping refugees abroad…an “East Texas boy” moving beyond the comforts of home to pursue social justice in Asia…there are many signs of this interconnectedness between us and the “rest of the world”, and this interconnectedness is the portal through which The ONE Foundation accomplishes its mission.

Documentaries and events like these serve as a good reminder to treasure our freedoms, while also supporting our global neighbors who seek this same freedom, and often end up paying the ultimate price. So, as the July 4th weekend rolls around, I hope we are all able to pause in between hot dogs and ice cream to reflect upon the significance of this day, of this life, of this time.

Click below to view “This is NOT Democracy.”


World Refugee Day

Houston can be, frankly, a terrifying place.  A sprawling metropolis with resources scattered across its regions and little public transportation connecting them, refugees find themselves engulfed by a concrete jungle that seems unconquerable.  Yet many slowly navigate through the challenges of low-income, crime-heavy apartment complexes, tattered medical and social care and a society that speaks not one, but two difficult languages: English and Spanish.  (Many refugees comment that the need for Spanish is more urgent than it is for English.) And  many even conquer the jungle, building their own communities, attending college and starting their own businesses.

World Refugee Day was first celebrated by the United Nations on June 20th, 2001, as a special commemoration of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.  The primary aim of WRD is to create awareness of the millions of human citizens displaced by war, persecution and political unrest.  But in Houston, it’s also meant as a day to celebrate and recognize the achievements of some of Houston’s newest citizens.

Organized and funded by the resettlement agencies and service organizations that work closest with the refugees, WRD operates as a giant party for all Houstonians, with the special guests being the men, women and children who came to Houston as refugees.  This year the planning committee worked with the City of Houston, Neighborhood Centers Incorporated and Nations Sport to provide a week of events that culminates in the main celebration, taking place this Saturday, June 25th.

Nothing brings people together like soccer, and this year we were lucky enough to partner with Nations Sport, the organization behind World Cup Houston, an annual international soccer tournament modeled after the FIFA World Cup.  (Iraq took home third place!)

The aim of WRD is to offer a place for the traditions and cultures of refugees to shine, to showcase more than what’s covered in a news article.  One of the biggest draws is the entertainment, traditional dances and songs performed by talented youth.  This year, there will also be an artisan’s market, featuring the Community Cloth.  A series of mini-documentaries will be shown to provide background about why the United States has invited refugees from so many countries.

I’ve had the honor and the privilege to serve as co-chair of WRD for the past two years, and I can say that there is no greater reward than to give Houston’s refugees and former refugees a space to connect and showcase their cultures’ talents and traditions.

We’ve dedicated space on this blog to spotlight the heartaches and joys of our refugee artisans, as a way to connect to the woman behind the scarf.  But on June 25th, we encourage you to connect with refugees in a completely different way—as a neighbor.

World Refugee Day Houston will take place June 25th, 2011, from 1 pm to 5 pm at the Baker Ripley Center (6500 Rookin Rd. 77074).  Events include entertainment, education/documentaries, artisan market, resource fair and children’s activities. The event is free, and we encourage everyone to come out and meet their neighbor.

For more information, please visit. www.refugeedayhouston.wordpress.com

Find us on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/HoustonWRD ) or Twitter (WRDHouston)


The Not So Simple Art of Weaving

“We sleep, but the loom of life never stops, and the pattern which was weaving when the sun went down is weaving when it comes up in the morning.” Henry Ward Beecher

Weaving is often perceived as a foreign art that requires much patience and precision. To the majority of non-artisan North Americans, the tools and terms associated with it are incredibly other-worldly. So, please do not be alarmed by the next few terms: warp, weft, batten, shed, shuttle, heddle, bobbin, beater! They are not onomatopoeia for the fighting sounds of the old “Batman and Robin” TV series.

Textile weaving actually dates back to civilization itself and variations of it can be observed around the world. There are horizontal, vertical, body tension, and even computerized looms used for weaving. The back strap loom which is a body tension loom is so simple and portable that a whole project can be rolled up for later completion. This type of loom works well for The Karenni weavers of The Community Cloth, who actually constructed their own looms after re-locating to Houston. Back strap looms require two metal or wooden bars, one attached to the outside of a window or door frame and the other held by the weaver. Some wooden dowels, and a strap that wraps around the waist of the artisan are also needed. The weaver sits on a mat on the floor once the thread is neatly arranged between the tools and the strap around her waist allows her to move backward to maintain the tension of the threads.

The two end bars hold the warp which is the collection of lengthwise threads that are stretched from the fixed horizontal pole all the way to the strap the weaver wears around the waist. In the art of weaving, it is crucial to stretch the threads so that there is tension. A weft is a collection of threads that rely on a tool crafted out of a smooth piece of wood known as a batten that separates the threads so it can be passed between two sets of thread. Then there’s the lovely bobbin that benefits from the batten and includes the weft thread as it moves side to side within the warp. A portion of thread is often wound on a shuttle to enable the passing of thread through the shed which is created by isolating the weft threads vertically.

All of these tools keep the thread from becoming a tangled mess. There are often two rods known as shed rods that allow for the crossing of the warp’s threads. The shuttle is a flat board with the thread attached around it from left to right. To keep the warp and the weaving thread tense, artisans incorporate another tool called a beater to literally beat the threads into submission. The weaver opens one shed, moves the shuttle containing weft thread through; then the alternate shed is opened and the former piece of weft thread is packed down using the beater. As the warp threads are reversed and the weft thread is moved through again, the weaving begins to materialize. The weaver’s movements appear so quick and effortless but this art form is what they have clothed their families for years and years. The Community Cloth weavers in Houston use the same kind of thread they used in their home country of Burma and they each share the work load of every woven scarf, bag and table runner. One handmade piece of work may have been created by several of the artisans.

All the moving and stationary parts of a loom have been made somewhat clear, now all that is missing is an actual hands-on weaving lesson. Most will agree that weaving is just one of those things that must be witnessed to be fully appreciated. There are often weaving demonstrations by the Karenni artisans, so make plans to be at the next one!

The photos in this week’s blog were lovingly captured by Jane Foster. See more of her work at: http://janefosterphotography.com/

For more information and images of weaving tools similar to those of the Karenni, visit:  http://www.snomnh.ou.edu/collections-research/cr-sub/ethnology/mayan/Technology/Backstrap.html

For videos and a weaving tutorial visit Laverne Waddington’s site at: http://www.weavezine.com/content/backstrap-basics


A World of Smiles

This will be the first in a two-part series on the country and culture of origin of one of our artisan groups. The second part will focus specifically on the Karenni, an ethnic minority that has been systemically persecuted over the last half century.  Big picture first.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should be forthcoming in what I knew about Burma prior to coming in contact with The Community Cloth:

1. Also known as Myanmar.

2. Some American swam across a lake to visit the Nobel Peace Prize winner who has been under house arrest for decades

That’s it. I’ve enjoyed learning a bit about a culture that I literally knew nothing about. Here are a few things you might also find interesting (if not, too bad – we already counted your page view!).

Burma, formally the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, is located in Southeast Asia, next to China, Thailand, Bangladesh, and India. Burma won its independence from Britain in 1948 but has been mired in ethnic conflict and largely under military rule ever since. The military junta has systemically oppressed many of the ethnic minority groups, and the country has stagnated economically. Human rights have largely been non-existent and Burma has been rated as the worst health care system in the world by the World Health Organization and one of the worst countries in terms of human development by the United Nations. Recently and under international pressure, Burmese leaders took some steps toward international appeasement through holding pro-forma elections and releasing dissidents, including Aung San Suu Kyi, pro democracy leader, Nobel laureate, and daughter of “the father of modern-day Burma.”

Burma has been devastated by several natural disasters, including a massive 2004 tsunami, a 2008 cyclone that left as many as 200,000 people dead and one million homeless, and an earthquake this March that wreaked havoc in the rural east.

To focus solely on the negative aspects of Burma would be to do the people of the country a disservice. Burmese people have many intangible assets – though living in very challenging conditions, they are strong, respectful, have a culture of service, and cherish traditions.

Burma is ethnically diverse, with 135 distinct ethnic groups. The largest are the Bamar, which comprise 68% of the population, Shan, and Karen.  89% of the 55 million Burmese are Buddhist, and most male children live for a period of their adolescence in a monastery. Aside from nationalistic policies enacted by the military, Burmese people are tolerant and respectful of religious minorities, including Christians (Burma has the second highest Baptist population in the world), Muslims, Hindus, Bahai, and others, although freedom of religion is more fully expressed in urban areas than in the rural countryside. The below picture depicts a stupa (Buddhist place of worship) next to a mosque in downtown Yangon, the economic center of Burma.

Burma is largely agrarian, with rice being the dominant product. 80% of the population lives in rural areas, and traditional houses are formed of bamboo. Popular graphic arts include weaving, painting on paper from tree bark or bamboo, and sculptures and carving. Lacquerware, a process of covering bamboo or wood with a liquid made from tree sap, is a distinctive art form. Pwes (“shows”), the most popular form of performing arts, combine music, dance, and drama.  A pwe typically starts at night and can last until the morning.

Burmese are known to be respectful and helpful, not just to foreigners (who have traditionally been restricted from traveling around the country), but to each other as well. It has been said that entering Burma is like entering a world of smiles, especially during Thingyan, the New Year Water Festival that last for three days in mid-April.

It is tempting to view Burma through a purely negative prism and to focus exclusively on corruption, stagnation, and human rights abuses. These are certainly and sadly characteristics of the country. But this singular viewpoint does disservice to the people of Burma, who demonstrate courage, resilience, dignity, and capacity for kindness and service. This is a world of inequity, but also a world of smiles.

The second part will focus on the Karenni hill tribe.

In the meantime, if you are looking for more information about Burma, join The ONE Foundation (The Community Cloth’s parent nonprofit organization) for a documentary film screening and talk on Wednesday, June 22nd (5:30-7:30pm) at The Downtown Club at Houston Center. For more information & to register, follow this link to our Facebook Events Page: http://tinyurl.com/5uuzzur or email us at thecommunitycloth@gmail.com!



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