For the last four weeks, this blog has focused on stories, stories of artisans, of volunteers, and most recently of the groundswell of compassion and appreciative inquiry that birthed The Community Cloth. With an informed perspective of a sense of the “why”, it seems a prime opportunity to touch on the “what”. What does The Community Cloth do? You can certainly read about our four areas of support under “The Artisans” tab of this website, and in future posts we may delve further into each area. For now, it seems the big picture is the best place to start.
The Community Cloth is a microenterprise development initiative. Microenterprise is an emergent sector. So emergent, in fact, that you may have to add it to your spellchecker (this blogger did). Microenterprise operates “one rung” below small business on the economic development ladder in terms of the size and scale of business. While it is typically defined as five or fewer employees with capital requirements of under $35,000, the average microenterprise business has 1.5 employees and many have monthly sales of a few hundred dollars. Many times the only employee is the owner – 65% of whom are women.
It might be easy to confuse size with importance, but nothing could be further from the truth. There are between 10 and 20 million microenteprises in the U.S., depending on who is counting what. More importantly, microenterprise provides the opportunity for many to participate in the workforce through self-employment, particularly for women who have limited resources but unlimited passion and drive. Microenterprise not only enhances the family’s income, but also offers the flexibility to care for the family and creates a vital sense of confidence and accomplishment. Part economic, part self-worth, and part community engagement, microenterprise meets women “where they are” and acts as the catalyst to a better life. This is only partially reflected in traditional business metrics; a much truer sense of value is found in the way women talk about the present and dream about the future.
If small business is the backbone of America’s economy, then microenterprise is America’s soul: the manifestation of self-expression and hard work that characterize this upstart of a nation – or is it a nation of upstarts?
Our refugee artisans are microentrepreneurs in the purest sense of the word, and thus embody the American dream in its most concrete manifestation. The Community Cloth’s role is development through empowerment – seed grants are part of the initiative, but even more important are trainings, peer support, and opportunities to take their product to market. This comprehensive approach is not about leverage in its traditional business sense – it is about traction. Our artisans have worked tirelessly and made tremendous sacrifices to create a better life for their families. The drive, the passion, and even the skill set are deeply ingrained in each artisan. The only thing missing is traction in this country; that to refugees is both unfamiliar and unlimited. Once an artisan gains traction, there is no limit to what she can accomplish, for herself, her family, and her community.
Editor’s Note: This week, we welcome guest blogger Scott Poteet, who was one of the original advisors to The Community Cloth! Scott is a remarkable person, not only for the fact that he devoted his life to supporting refugees through his work with a local resettlement nonprofit, but that he chose to live among the refugees while in Houston, and volunteered his time, above and beyond his “day job.” The Community Cloth would not have come to fruition without Scott’s guidance, connections to the local community and generous (and fun!) spirit. Although he is now studying and teaching in Saudi Arabia, his presence continues to be felt.
In 2009, I taught English classes for adult refugees who lived at an apartment complex in Southwest Houston. I also lived onsite and got to know the families well. One cold November night, a group of Karenni women stayed after our English class. The women had only recently arrived from refugee camps in Thailand, after having fled their war-torn homeland of Burma (also known as Myanmar). Their translator was a 14-year-old 8th grader who was among the first Karenni families to arrive in Houston. Through her help, the women wanted to ask an urgent question.
“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.”
I learned that the women needed a number of supplies to build looms. Not knowing of a loom store, I drove them to the nearby Home Depot. The huge orange sign and high ceilings were fascinating to my Karenni students, as their colorful outfits were fascinating to the other customers.
But the women came with a mission, and without being able to communicate in English, let their language of weaving looms direct them to their goal. Within 10 minutes, they had arrived at the checkout, having collected pieces of 2×8 wooden planks, 10 long pieces of plumbing pipe, a package of large screws and five 12 foot metal poles. Thanks to the generosity of donors, the women were able to pay for the materials in one visit, eagerly fitting things into the van.
The next morning, before the sun rose, with the sky a tint of blue that you could barely see, a knock came on my apartment door. The Karenni women had returned, using hand motions to ask that I unlock the classroom apartment so they could build the looms.
And so they did.
One of the women’s sons borrowed a circular saw to cut the wood and pipe. Another woman brought a machete to cut the plastic pipe. And yet another found pieces from a broken chair near the dumpster, which turned out to be the perfect size, shape and length for making a spinning wheel. The group used a broken brick to hammer nails into the outside window frame so that the poles could hang. Everyone contributed.
Within one short day the women had worked from a shared vision to weave together their loom.
Soon after, The Community Cloth volunteers connected with friends in Thailand who were able to send the exact thread needed for weaving traditional Karenni handbags and clothes. And the weavers were in business!
Now, around dawn, the weavers walk their children to the school bus, then walk to work in the apartment where they spend the rest of the day – weaving, watching toddlers, talking, hoping, even practicing English together.
I cannot imagine what refugee families have been through. The Karenni families, like all refugees who find asylum and a new life in the United States, have spent their lives running from violence in their homeland. Then, they spend years in refugee camps in Thailand, with just enough to eat, just enough to build a bamboo house and just enough community spirit to hope for a better future.
Still there are dark, dark moments. Even in the U.S., nothing about the future is certain. Will there be a job? Can I pay my rent? What if my child gets sick? Will my language, culture and traditions continue in my new American life? What if I can’t learn English and this new culture?
But you learn to go forward, as the Karenni weavers taught me, like you would keep moving in a forest – look for the light through the trees, and follow it.
The Community Cloth didn’t just happen. Like the morning light, it slowly dawned on all of us. It dawned on the refugee women who saw a vision, a light of an idea, and followed it. It dawned on volunteers who welcomed and befriended newly arrived refugees as people with gifts and talents, then were determined to share that vision with others. It dawned on the many hospitable people of Houston who have opened their homes, their churches and their businesses to celebrate the work of the artisans. And that dawning continues….like light through the trees.
ta·ble[tey-buhl] noun, verb, -bled, -bling, adjective
A total of 26 definitions for “table” are provided at dictionary.com, two of which are:
- “an article of furniture consisting of a flat, slablike top supported on one or more legs or other supports.”
- “a group of persons at a table, as for a meal, game, or business transaction.”
As the last rays of sunlight shining through the crooked, open blinds disappeared, the room turned dim, illuminated only by a donated, rusting brass lamp. The floors were bare, the furniture skeletal. Yet the room offered a warm welcome to all who entered.
It was the fall of 2009, and about a dozen of us were gathered around a table in a one-bedroom apartment, which had been converted into a classroom for refugee families living onsite. In that cramped space, volunteers and refugees had gathered to work on a proposal for a project that would support refugee women artisans.
The volunteers had been helping local refugee families through teaching ESL, offering transportation, starting women’s circles and more. Through our time with the families, we came to recognize a common frustration, particularly from the women — finding employment, while also taking care of children, learning English, going to social service appointments, and generally transitioning to life in the U. S., was a huge challenge. Yet they had so many strengths to share, and they wanted to put those skills to work — and we wanted to help them do so.
Since none of the ladies spoke much English, interpreters worked to keep everyone involved in the conversation. As we labored through details of timelines and budgets for the project, I began to worry that we had lost the interest of the women artisans. Six were present, women from Burma, Bhutan and Somalia. They were respectful, listening intently, but we weren’t hearing much input from them, though we were careful to solicit their ideas as often as possible.
I decided it was time to take a break from the minutiae of numbers and dates and projections.
“Why don’t we take a moment to have you all show your arts and crafts, yes? We’re excited to see them.”
At this invitation, the women’s shyness gave way to the sort of confidence that comes only from sharing something of personal meaning with others. From plastic bags, grocery totes, and whatever other reusable containers they had brought with them, emerged beautifully decorated table linens, scarves, hats, and baby items! The vibrant colors and textures of knitting, crocheting, embroidery and weaving quickly swathed the plain, old table at which we sat, transforming it into a living, breathing mosaic, a product of human hands and hearts.
Five different dialects swirled around the table, as the women tried to chat with each other. There was no common tongue among the artisans, yet the universal language of excitement prevailed: pointing, touching, smiling, “oohs” and “ahhs” filling the room, as they marveled at each others’ handicrafts. It was magical!
It was as if all the pain and heartache of escaping war and persecution, surviving refugee camps, making it across the sea to resettle to the U. S, had poured through their needles, warping tools, and hands and been transformed into things of beauty.
At that moment, their remarkable journeys merged on the table, and suddenly I knew that with these womens’ skills and souls feeding it, day by day, this seed of an idea — this possibility of a refugee women’s microenterprise — could grow.
For many of us, “the table” symbolizes a place where important decisions are made, and the phrase “having a seat at the table” conveys an inclusive process where all have a voice in the decision-making process. The phrase may be cliché, but for The Community Cloth, having the women present, participating and leading, is the only way toward change. Through the program, our artisans live out the deeper possibilities of what a table can be — and we are the ones who are honored to have a seat at theirs.
We slowly drive back to the apartments, the scenery outside changing from outdated townhomes to upscale ghettos. Four Bhutanese women—Madhu, Chandra, Durga, and Lachi—are crammed into my car, Hobby Lobby shopping bags clutched between their knees. After an hour-long yarn-purchasing expedition, we have exhausted the limited conversation that their basic English and my pathetic Hindi can provide. So we have settled into an anxious silence, waiting for someone to introduce a topic that everyone can easily understand.
The last of the townhomes slide by when Madhu, the eldest and ringleader of the women, speaks up. “My house burned down.”
I pause. “What?” I ask, thoroughly confused. I was just in front of her apartment, and from the outside, it looked fine, albeit missing the glass for the sliding balcony door.
“My house burned down,” Madhu repeats, a little more confidently.
“…at your apartment?”
“Noooo,” Mahdu says, and laughs. “In Nepal.”
Fires are painfully common within the Bhutanese refugee camps, where overcrowding, rudimentary cooking facilities and ethnic persecution often result in some form of conflagration. But in March 2008 the worst fire broke out, destroying over 1200 huts and displacing some 8,000 refugees, who had already been displaced for nearly 20 years [i]. I was familiar with the tragedy, and had even referenced it when talking with potential supporters in my previous job, but I never really imagined one of the survivors being my friend.
“What happened?” I ask Madhu. She crooks her head and then begins speaking with Chandra in Nepali. Chandra, who knows about thirty more words of English than the other ladies, is the resident English expert and translator.
“She says that there was a fire, and her house burned down, and they had to live in the forest,” Chandra says. The “forest” of course, being the jungle.
“How long did you live in the forest?” A flurry of Nepali passes through the car. “Until they came here.”
“It was very bad,” says Madhu, stretching out the word “very” into three syllables, and laughs. “I was so sad. I cried for two days.” She laughs again. “But I am here now and I am very happy!” She laughs, and this time, the whole car laughs with her.
As the world mourns for Japan, my thoughts keep turning to Madhu. Three years ago, as she stared at the charred remains of her home, gathering any salvageable pieces of her life to take with her to the jungle, she could not have imagined ever becoming an American businesswoman. Yet here she is, one of the founding artisans of the Community Cloth, and leader of four other women. Her apartment serves as “home base” for the group, where they knit together, chatting and encouraging one another. But she didn’t get this far solely through resettlement agencies and relief aid; Madhu made it because she did what she does best—laugh. Surrounded by destruction, she found joy and humor, and embraced it. Madhu is not the sole possessor of this quality. Virtually every single Cloth artisan has the most amazing laugh, laughing when things are funny, laughing at sad stories of their lives, laughing because there is nothing to talk about. Their laughter is infectious, and represents the soul of the Cloth.
Even as the news from Fukushima becomes grimmer, I hope one of the survivors is able to look around them—look at the destruction, look at their family, and look to the future of rebuilding—and find peace. And I hope they can laugh.
Postscript: This month, another major fire broke out in the Goldhap refugee camp in Nepal. Over 600 huts were destroyed, including the World Food Program-led food store, and 25 were injured. To make a donation towards rebuilding, contact:
Bhadra Rai, Director of the Bhutanese Community of Houston
Checks can be made to:
Bhutanese Community of Houston
6601 Sands Point Dr. #18
Houston, TX 77074
Walking up to Narmaya’s door, it’s obvious that behind it is a lively home because there are so many pairs of bright colored flip flops on the mat. I kick off my shoes and step inside a different world that looks like a little Nepal, even carrying its faraway scents. Narmaya greets you with a tired but warm smile. She lives with her three daughters, one son, her husband and his parents – eight people share this two-room home. Some of the things I see when I first walk in are Christmas lights strung around the ceiling, pictures of family, a calendar, a large bag of rice and an altar with incense on it. In the corner drying on sheets of a newspaper are bits of lettuce, onion and celery steeped in red hot spices which will be incorporated into the family’s meals that week.
My sweet friend utters one word, a question, a welcome and a comfort, all in one – “tea?” Of course I accept but this time I ask to watch how she prepares the chai. I step into her tiny white-walled kitchen as she retrieves a small pot and locates the necessities: a large bag of Assam black tea, milk, sugar, and pepper. She boils the water, throws in a small handful of black tea, some sugar, a hearty dose of black pepper, and lets it simmer. She stirs and adds milk. There is no need for measuring spoons, she has been doing this same ritual for years and has it down to a science. She takes the rich colored tea off the heat and strains it into a mug. The temperature of the chai is perfect, the taste, consistently delicious. Having a tray to serve tea and fruit on is a necessity as hospitality is extremely important in the Bhutanese and Nepali cultures. In fact, it seems the essentials for entertaining include: a chair for your guest, a tray and a small table for tea.
Even though Narmaya is not drinking tea, she has prepared some for me. Before I leave, I make sure to check with her on finished knitting projects. A lovely light blue scarf and a white scarf materialize. She is also skilled at knitting wonderful shawls and shrugs and has a good eye for colors and textures. We check the length and quality of the scarves and make sure they have tags and prices. Sometimes it is difficult to convey to the artisans the value of their time or their handmade, detailed work but we let them set prices. As I finish another unforgettable cup of tea, slip on my sandals and head out the door with precious scarves in tow, I’m eager to share the stories of the admirable woman that created them.