“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” ~Lao Tzu
Last month, we held a “going away” party for Cloth artisan Bima. After being resettled to Houston about two years ago, Bima was now relocating to Ohio, where she would be reconnected with family.
In preparing for the event, we explained to Bima and her daughters that we would be bringing all of the food, plates, drinks, and everything needed for a good party. We should have known better.
When we arrived to set up, we were treated as the guests of honors. In line with their custom, Bima and her family whisked around her kitchen, cooking a feast, piling home-cooked goodness onto plates for their guests. There was simply no convincing her to sit, relax and be served as the guest of honor.
After dinner, I asked if she could pause just a moment so we can present her with some going-away gifts. She finally conceded, settling down into a fold-out chair in the corner of the room. She gently unwrapped the items — a photo album, a certificate of participation, a shopping gift card, other little trinkets, as well as her final payment for items sold through The Community Cloth. We shared with her how much we will miss her, and how we all wished her well on her journey. One of her fellow Bhutanese artisans translated into Nepali, as Bima speaks very little English.
Other Cloth artisans, in turn, came up to present their gifts to Bima and offer a smile, a hug, an encouraging word. As she sat there, surrounded by the little packages, she brought a tightly-clutched kitchen towel up to her eyes to dot away the tears. She was touched by the show of support of her friends and sisters-in-spirit. She was sad that a journey toward a new home meant leaving the one she worked hard to build up in Houston. Tears soon filled the entire room.
Also in the pile of goodies we gave her was a video in which Bima was interviewed, sharing the story of hundreds of thousands of Bhutanese Nepali families who fled persecution by crossing the border into refugee camps.
The life of a refugee is one seemingly never-ending journey: a journey from your homeland to the refugee camps; from the refugee camps to a new world called “Houston, TX”; and perhaps from Houston to resettle elsewhere in the U. S., to be closer to family, or for better work options. Whether the journey took you across the border to refugee camps in Nepal, or on a dangerous trek through the hills of Burma to escape the military junta, or in a rickety little boat on the South China sea, as was my family’s story, the journey of a refugee is to travel a thousand miles away from home, physically and emotionally, knowing you’ll never see “home” again.
It’s a life of saying goodbye…but it’s also a life of new beginnings. So we wish Bima – our friend, mother and grandmother, widow, knitter and crocheter, survivor – a hopeful next chapter of her journey, and a beautiful new beginning in Ohio.
We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face… we must do that which we think we cannot. Eleanor Roosevelt
For many of the Cloth artisans, this is not their first time earning money for their talents. Just as they do in Houston, they knitted and wove to support their families. The major difference between the refugee camps and Houston, however, is the amount they make. Bhutanese knitter Narmaya would knit hats and scarves and sell them to an organization working within the camps. A kilogram of knitted goods—no matter the type or quality—would earn her 60 rupees (approximately 1 USD). The money never went far. A sack of potatoes, a daily expense, cost 50 rupees, and her children needed money for school supplies. Because work was scarce (and illegal) in the camps, this was the only way for many women to ensure their families’ survival.
The impact of wholesaling their items extended beyond any economic hardships; it devalued their work, silently asserting that their talents as craftswomen were useless beyond readily making scarves and hats. The goal was never innovation or expanding their knowledge; it was to quickly fill a basket with yarn and put food on the table.
What most distinguishes the Cloth from the businesses in the refugee camps is the complete and total involvement of the artisans. For most of them, this is an overwhelming shift, seen most of all in price-setting. The artisans set their own prices, always. But in the beginning, nearly all of the women were hesitant to charge anything close to market value for their wares. After furtively begging volunteers to set the price, scarves were set at ten dollars and accompanied with anguished faces, sure that no one would pay so much. Shock quickly replaced the doubt and fear, however, as the artisans saw their items sell at farmers’ markets, festivals and in-home events. For many of our initial participants, it took about three sales events before they had the “aha” moment that people will pay that much—and more—for a scarf.
As in the camps, the monetary value of their products meant more than just how much food they can put on the table. For the first time, Cloth artisans realized that their handicrafts, and their talent and skill, had worth.
This realization impacted the quality of the items made. The women started comparing their products and exchanging tips and secrets with each other. They requested education, and devoured the trainings received. A few of the women began experimenting with different designs and ideas, creating some of our biggest sellers. The spark of confidence that came from knowing that their work was valued and appreciated has grown the Cloth in ways we never could have fantasized.
The women still struggle with setting prices. They understand covering the cost of materials but covering the cost of labor seems sometimes uncomfortable, as if we are asking too much. New items, regardless of quality or skill, are almost universally underpriced. But as the Cloth continues to grow, so will the assurance of the artists.
And that is priceless.
So, where does the money go? One hundred percent of the money from a Cloth sale goes directly back to the artisan. Every penny of it.
That means it goes toward:
- paying the electricity bill
- paying the water bill
- putting extra food on the table
- purchasing school supplies for their children
- purchasing new clothes
If you would like to support the Cloth by hosting a private in-home event, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Early Saturday morning, the sky was remarkably blue, the sun warm and bright. It was a perfect way to begin our new artisan orientation for The Community Cloth. Seated in a circle of chairs were 9 ladies from Bhutan, Sudan, and Iraq eager to become a part of this group they have heard so much about. Two of the younger women held tiny swaddled babies in their arms while others brought expamples of their delicate work to share. A general sense of excitement and anticipation filled the room of the Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center. Expressions of hope and thoughtfulness were on the faces of the awaiting artisans. The space provided for The Community Cloth by Neighborhood Centers has become quite special. The windows stream in the golden sunshine, photos of some of the first artisans hang on one wall, and brightly-colored woven and hand knit product samples are on a folding display along the other.
Three of our current artisans were present and actively assisted their fellow new artisans in filling out the application that was in English. Chitra, Devi and Nar have all been in the program for the past year and it was moving to see them take time out of their weekend to come encourage the new women as they began their journey with The Community Cloth. Co-founders, Roxanne and Quynh-Anh led the orientation with great ease and one of the leading Bhutanese artisans, Devi, helped with translations. A few program Co-facilitators (dedicated volunteers who mentor the artisans) were also present, providing reassurance and support for the new ladies. Many of the women had already made a stride in the right direction by using public transportation to arrive promptly.
Quynh-Anh began the orientation with an introductory exercise utilizing a ball of blue yarn. She shared a bit of her personal history and her heart for working with refugees and building The Community Cloth and then invited the next person to talk about herself by tossing the ball of yarn across the circle while maintaining a piece of the it. Each woman spoke purposefully, mostly in her language, waited for the translation, tossed the yarn, and then listened intently as the next woman spoke, caring to learn just as much as to share. There were smiles, laughs, and bonds of connectivity that joined the women, just as the web of connected strands of yarn materialized between them. Each new artisan came to Houston as a political refugee. Some have been here a number of months and others have been here a few years.
Each artisan showed gratitude to The Community Cloth program for the ability to make items that can be sold, to learn new skills, and to make friends. Each volunteer and co-facilitator became involved because in many ways and for many reasons, this collective has become family. Roxanne and Quynh-Anh covered all the bases to ensure the women understood the program, who their co-facilitators were, the purpose of the peer groups, how the seed grant worked, and answered other questions from the group. At the end of the session, there were hugs farewell and plans to meet again soon. All expressed joy at the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than oneself. This was a meaningful day, the start of something in these women’s lives that will make a difference for the better.
“The identity of an individual is essentially a function of her choices.” ~Amartya Sen
“Could [we] use the apartment classroom to weave?”
“How big are your looms?” I asked.
“No, we don’t have them yet, but maybe one day.”
Several weeks ago, Scott Poteet’s blog post memorialized this 2009 exchange between refugees and volunteers that was in part the genesis of The Community Cloth. This brief conversation provides a window into the expression of emotions that are the core of the human condition. The dream of a better tomorrow; the yearning for the manifestation of this dream; and the audacity of choosing to act on this yearning despite many barriers. Even more remarkable are the paths by which they came to be meeting in an apartment complex in Houston, Texas, America.
The path to building their voices has been more nuanced, as becoming comfortable with choice is a process. Nobel Laureate and economist Amartya Sen wrote that an individual’s capability is the reflection of their freedom to achieve something of value. But the transition from countries-of-origin with limited freedom to a country where choice is encouraged can be a significant transition. The manifestation of choice was apparent in 2009, but needed to be cultivated – sustained change does not happen over night.
The Community Cloth’s empowerment involves encouraging our artisans to find their own voice, to feel confident in their choices, and to keep reminding themselves that “they are the boss”. The choices of technique, thread or yarn, of color and design, of quantity, all result in creating products of high value (check out some samples!), which in turn reinforces the validity of choice. Slowly, over time, our artisans are building their voice by expressing their identities.
The artisans’ work not only provides for economic gain – it also affirms their worth and place in the world and the value they create through their products is recognized by their husbands and families. The income they bring home is an important part of the household’s functioning. Through pursuing their own path, they gain respect within their families and their communities.
The refugees who would become artisans of The Community Cloth understood the significance of choice. They had known a world without choice (or, at best, with very limited choice) and consciously created a new reality for themselves by seeking a new life in America and seized the opportunity to be part of a microenterprise. They had to overcome many external and even internal barriers, but everything that followed the 2009 conversation and everything that will come in the future is validation of life-affirming capability: the expression of self through the expression of work.
Editor’s Note: As Mother’s Day approaches, we want to honor the artisans involved in The Community Cloth, who all happen to be mothers (although that is not an eligibility criteria for our program). Each has shown great fortitude in what lengths she will go to in order to protect and provide for her children, as reflected in this week’s entry.
And, if you haven’t been able to find that special something for your own mom, there’s still time to visit one of our retail outlets to pick up a gift that will make her heart warm!
“The bond between mother and son is a special one.
It remains unchanged by time or distance.
It is the purest love ~ unconditional and true.
It is always there, ~ anytime, anywhere ~ whenever it is needed.
It is a gift held in the heart and in the soul,
and it cannot be taken away or exchanged for another.
To possess this love is a treasure that makes life more valuable.”
Yasodha is a strong maternal figure in mythology; as such, the name suits one of the fierce Bhutanese knitters of The Community Cloth. She is a nurturing mother of two sons, Kumar, 28, and Ghana, 18. She enjoys making baby hats and booties. Yasodha’s older son works for a plastics company so is able to cover the cost of the small apartment. He only comes home on the weekends so for the most part it is only Yasodha and Ghana in the home. Mother and son take care of each other; this is the symbiotic nature of family. Ghana openly expresses gratitude that his mother is a part of The Community Cloth because it gives her something positive to focus on. It allows her the opportunity to go to new places in Houston, to spend time with other women and to feel a sense of purpose.
One of Ghana’s school projects, a poster board, hangs on the wall beside the front door. It has photos, a magazine cut out of a car and words that are significant to him, such as school and family. These seemingly unconnected elements surround a photo of his mother. He has said that it is his responsibility to take care of her. He has learned from her to never give up, to not let the bad times get him down, and to ask for help when he needs it. As the only literate person in his family, he wants to pursue nursing so that he can better provide for his mother and hopefully, one day, his wife. His mention of the word wife makes him smile and he says he thinks about this often.
Yasodha’s primary responsibility is to her son, Ghana. If she is out and about she will be anxious about being home by the time his school bus drops him off. If it is the afternoon on any given weekday, Yasodha will be hastily preparing a hot meal for Ghana since he does not particularly care for the food at school. Ghana used to ride his bike to pick up groceries and necessities for he and his mother. However, his old, pink bicycle was stolen and this has created some stress on him.
The rest of Yasodha’s family lives in North Carolina and she pines for her relatives, looking forward to the day Ghana finishes high school. He is the man of the house and takes care of his mother. Yasodha will find clothes and things to give to her son but he has to inspect them ever since she once found him a girl’s jacket. He had to explain that he could not wear that to school and they both had a good laugh.
Today, Yasodha is working on a sweater for her son for college, which will be in a year or so. She keeps the yarn tight as she looks up over her eyeglasses that still have the two stickers on the outside of the lenses. The sweater is bright red with some silver sparkles through it. Ghana seems to like it, which surprises me because the flash of sparkles does not seem to align with her preference for understated modesty. But the lovingly hand-crafted sweater is a bright red “power tie”. It is a symbol of hope and ambition. They both have set the goal that he will attend college and that they work together as a family to make this a reality. The Community Cloth has provided Yasodha an opportunity to earn much needed income to purchase nutritious food, clothing, shoes, and school supplies for her son. As I walk down the stained cement stairs of the apartment building, Yasodha looks down like a mother from her second floor balcony’s sliding glass door and I give her a reassuring wave goodbye.