Monday, December 31, 2007
A few weeks ago, Sharon and Anna met Mama Moumina, the undisputed doyenne of the Bantu community. Mama M is a force to be reckoned with. In a community where major decisions are made among the council of elders, it is Mama who often determines the outcome of those decisions. And she is wonderful. Her commanding presence is softened by her mischievous sense of humor and her theatrical expression. Mama M is a comedian, a diva, and a little bit intimidating. And so it was we were honored and maybe a little bit nervous when Mama M said she wanted to join the crafts group and try her hand at making jewelry.
Today was Mama M's first lesson. When I arrived, I walked into a curtained off bedroom where Anna, Bakhara, and Moumina were seated on the floor, a pile of beads and jewelry-making supplies spread on the floor between them. Bakhara's two-year-old daughter was peeking around the curtain, trying to decide whether or not to come in or just launch an ambush on Anna from behind the curtain (it was the latter). The heat was cranked up high and the windows had long since steamed over.
I settled in to watch the lesson. Bakhara was patiently showing Mama M how to make earrings. Bakhara went through the first steps again and again, demonstrating the procedures and then assisting Mama M. The language was Mai-Mai, but the tone was that of an encouraging teacher. Mama M was a serious pupil but relaxed enough to shrug off her mistakes and move on. She really wanted to get it right, though--no false praise would do. I wondered: Would I risk learning something so unfamiliar (so publicly) at her age and station in life?
I looked at these women and thought about how it had been only a few weeks ago that Anna took a picture of Haiffaa teaching Bakhara, and as has been the way of things in this project, the newly-acquired knowledge was passed on to another woman almost immediately. I was struck by how Mama M, this respected woman of status in her community, patiently took instruction from a 20-year-old.
When Mama finished her first earring, she modeled it with more than a bit of sass. I took her picture, but it didn't really capture the playful showing off, the raised eyebrow, the hand on hip, the tilted chin and the flair that came with the pride one can only feel after finally figuring out how to do something that has been a challenge. When I thought about it, I realized that although Mama is known for her fiery personality, on this afternoon she was actually somewhat reserved and totally absorbed with the intricacies of turning a headpin.
The afternoon drew to a close after what seemed like just minutes. As we prepared to leave, Mama M asked for our phone numbers--in case she were to need further consultations. She smiled and in eloquent Mai-Mai, thanked us for our help. Anna responded quite competently in Mai-Mai. As we stepped past the curtain, I glanced back and saw Mama was still busily sorting beads. The curtain fell back into place, and Anna, Bakhara, her girls and I bundled ourselves up, said our goodbyes, and trundled out into the cold, snowy twilight.
It was a fine finish to a pretty good year.
Sunday, December 30, 2007
Jaime and Sharon started the day with a visit to Sharifo to drop off supplies. Sharifo had six necklace and earring sets ready to go. She was happy to receive a new batch of beads--probably enough to last her at least a month. She needed a brief refresher lesson on using the crimp tool and attaching the dangle on to an earring. Sharon was happy to oblige.
Next, Jaime and Sharon met up with Anna over at Bakhara's apartment across town. Bakhara continues to be adamant about making her jewelry from seed beads in traditional African colors. She has started to integrate some more "western" beads into her designs which may increase their saleability among American buyers. Actually, her jewelry has a unique and original flair. In addition to helping Bakhara with her jewelery, Anna also stepped in to diaper Bakhara's daughter who had pretty happily started running around mid-change.
Next it was off to see Htee Ku Paw to deliver the money she earned from her most recent work. What a lovely reason to visit! Htee was busy weaving some beautiful fabric for a traditional Karen school bag. Two of her children were eager to meet the visitors and pose (and pose and pose) for pictures. Who knew the little screen on a digital camera could be so entertaining?
The final stop was a surprise visit to Haiffaa who was busy...relaxing. She was luxuriating in having the time to just hang out and do nothing on a Sunday. We dropped off a New Year gift for her: A wonderful Bead-Project-A-Day calendar. Haiffaa is always eager to learn new jewelry techniques and to get creative inspiration, so this seemed like a very appropriate gift.
Jaime is somewhat new to A Little Something, but not to working in the world of refugee resettlement. She will be working on details related to nonprofit business development and getting us connected and networked with similar programs around the U.S. Of course, Jaime will be involved with some jewelry making, too! This was her first opportunity to do the rounds and meet some of the women in the project--you know, the fun part of getting a program like this off the ground (although we may already be hovering).
It looks like the New Year will be off to an enthusiastic and productive start for the A Little Something gang. Stay tuned...
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
The best gift we received this year came early. It was the tremendous generosity, encouragement, and support we received from so many people around the world. We feel very blessed this holiday season!
Best wishes for day that surrounds you with love and abundance.
Sharon & Anna
and all of the women who are creating A Little Something
Thursday, December 20, 2007
We'll keep you posted just as soon as we finish our holiday preparations!
Friday, December 7, 2007
I missed posting pictures from the long-postponed class we had on December 1. It was a little hectic due to a lack of teachers, but our first-time students had a proper introduction to the joy of jewelry making. A few photos:
Anna explains, "You start over here at zero, then count, one right, one left..."
Sharon helps Madina with some design encouragement.
It was an effort of epic proportions, but in the end, we had a bracelet--crimps and all!
Look what my mom made for me!
In anticipation of our holiday craft sales participation, Anna created little price tags to go with each piece of jewelry. Each tag shows the name, country, and photo of the woman who crafted the piece. The price goes on the back. This picture is a little less than ideal, but it will still give you the idea of what Anna created. These tags were a highlight of the sales display and of the day in general. Good job, Bead Woman Anna--the only person I know who does graphic design in Excel!
Thursday, December 6, 2007
Our project has been the case study for some wonderfully creative and business-minded college students. Today Haiffaa, Khadiga and I went to Regis University to see the research presentation the marketing class put together for A Little Something. It was fantastic. The students did a great job of explaining the basic elements of building a business while being sure to keep the integrity of the women intact. I was very proud of the students.
Here is a picture of the class with Haiffaa and Khadiga. I just want to thank them all for their hard work.
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
The project has been a challenge for every woman involved. We are all learning--and there is a lot to learn. Sometimes that presents huge obstacles, and sometimes it's fascinating. It has been a blessing to know that we have a lot supporters, some far away, some here at home, but all are enthusiastic.
Today we held our first big crafts sale. It was at Opportunity School, where some of the refugee women attend English classes or have in the past. Doing an event like this is sort of like throwing a party when you don't really know if anyone will show up. Well, our party was well attended. Sales were excellent, and although the financial end of things was exciting, there was something else about today that will be memorable far longer than the excitement of healthy sales.
Our room was busy almost nonstop for the four hours of the sale. Not everyone who came was a customer. We saw a lot of people from the school, students and staff alike. Quite a few people from the refugee network here took time from their busy day (and they are busy) to visit, as did other people from the larger community who have heard about this project. Haiffaa and Khadiga were on hand to meet their public, and they were fine ambassadors for their project.
Over and over we were praised for our hard work. Plenty of folks asked, "How can I help?" Words of encouragement surrounded us all day. The money was a very good thing, but we can never assign a value to the outpouring of support and kind words we received today.
All of us who work on this project have been working very, very hard. Sometimes our efforts are rewarding, and sometimes we come away from the day very frustrated. After months of pouring most of our energy and all of our spare time into trying to get the crafts project off the ground, it looks like we're really on our way. Up until now, these blog posts have been a reflection of our focus: How is this working for the refugee women involved? Today I stood in the middle of the room, surrounded by colleagues, students, and visitors and watched their smiles and facial expressions of curiosity and delight. I listened to a shower of kind words full of enthusiasm and encouragement. I watched people marvel over Anna's fabulous product tags that put the women's faces and names with the things they had made. "This is great" was something we heard over and over.
Personally, I've been exhausted lately, but today was a very good day and energizing in its own way. When I realized just how much community support we have, it was like having a refreshing glass of water on a hot day. I think that all of us who have been putting our hearts into this project forget to take time to appreciate all we've accomplished. It's nice that others are taking the time to remind us that our time has been well spent. We're not in this for the "thank you," but standing in a room full of happy people who are excited about what we're trying to do, seeing that they are filled with enthusiasm and encouragement, felt like a big hug and an A+ rolled up in one.
It was a good day.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Kate graciously offered to include us in the church's annual Alternative Gift Market, a craft sale for fair trade groups. We didn't even have to be there--Kate and her congregation took care of everything for us.
The Bead Women made some money, but more important, a wider circle of people in our community learned about our project, our mission, and our artisans.
Thanks Kate! Thanks PHCC!! We truly appreciate your thoughtfulness in including us in such a special event.
Saturday, November 10, 2007
It was a good learning experience for one of our students to see where the rest of us get our supplies and what retail prices look like. By the way, they found carbon paper. Next field trip: Michaels.
Saturday, November 3, 2007
Busy, busy, busy. Susan, I feel like you must everyday. Nearly every minute of my day from 8-4:30 was jam packed...I dropped off my sewing machine with Haiffaa today. I brought so much stuff with me this morning I looked like a pack horse. I am going to go over to Haiffaa's tomorrow and we are going to do a small lesson on how to sew small gift bags for the jewelry.
Khadiga also showed me her sewing machine that she brought with her from Sudan. It is a Singer... a very good vintage Singer. She just recently got it fixed. Tomorrow I will be bringing her some material and patterns that were donated to me by my mom. I have been waiting and waiting for this point... Khadiga said she makes skirts and dresses, so I am excited to see what she comes up with.
And the new development of the day.... I gave Angelique a beginner's jewery kit today. I went over to her house around 2pm and we had a very short one-on-one lesson on how to make braclets, necklaces and earrings. I have attached the photos from today. It was easy to see that she has had very little experience with using tools. It was very hard for her, but she was very happy to make something beautiful. Her daughters were very intrigued too. So intrigued in fact, the younger one kept trying to sit in my lap and be a part of the action.
Ohhh... I forgot about Htee... How could I? I brought her a bunch of yarn, and she had a whole new bag full of woven scarves and a bag. I didn't have time to look through the whole bag, but I am sure there is a lot more great stuff in there. I will be visiting her tomorrow after I see Haiffaa.
Just in case you were wondering, I made sure to let Khadiga know that Angelique was just starting out with the jewelry making, and Khadiga automatically said "She come to Khadiga's house. We do same." Which, in my book, translates to "she can come over and I can help her." I made sure Angelique knew that too. They only have English to communicate with each other, so that will be interesting for them. They both seemed happy to get together, though.
Building community ladies... It is hard work.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
You would think that given the circumstances, these women would be nervous speaking in front of a group, but they weren't. Anna said they both did a great job of explaining what the project is and what makes it special and important to all of the women involved.
Haiffaa and Khadija did such a great job, in fact, that the students are under the impression that our project is much farther along than it actually is.
It's been less than three months, and two of our participants already had their first speaking engagement. If this doesn't speak of empowerment, what does?
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Sunday, October 21, 2007
It looks like we need to have a lesson to review technical skills and quality control. That's OK and a normal part of the learning process. Practice and patience make perfect.
There's still lots of enthusiasm, and it's spreading. Also, we've had a plan all along to expand the project to include crafts that the women enjoy, beyond making jewelry. Our group is starting to include quite a few Burmese Karen women and that should add a whole new element to the energy of our group. All of our Burmese students carry a lightweight, brightly colored, woven shoulder bag when they leave the house. I received one of these bags as a gift from a student, and the workmanship is lovely. We need to find out where the fabric is coming from. The blue bag pictured here was made by Htee Ku Paw and is modeled by teacher Melissa.
There are so many exciting--almost overwhelming--developments coming to our project, it's hard to take it all in. We've only been at this about ten weeks (!!), although it seems like so much longer. We're on a really sharp learning curve as organizers, as teachers, as mentors, and as business women. Is this very different from how the refugee women feel when they arrive in this country and need to function here almost immediately? The American Bead Women have the advantage of language, but that doesn't mean we always know what we're doing. Everyone working on this project is growing in totally unanticipated ways. What a gift.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
We've received a few requests to explain what, exactly, a refugee is. To help our visitors understand this complex and often misunderstood issue, the definition is posted in the sidebar to the right. Just scroll down to learn the most important details. For a more in-depth look at the issue, click here to visit the UNHCR Website.
Approximately 80% of the world's refugees are women and children. Currently, the largest populations arriving in the US are coming from Burma, Burundi, Somalia, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Congo, and Iran (religious minorities). Refugees from Nepal (Bhutanese), Iraq, and possibly Darfur, Sudan are expected to start arriving soon.
There are many ways to assist with refugee resettlement in your area. Many religious or community-based organizations see the care of resettling refugees as part of their core mandate. To find a list of US resettlement agencies and their Websites, click on this link for the US Department of Health and Human Services Website.
Saturday, October 6, 2007
This is Tukano Salat. She is the second daughter of her Bantu mother Fatuma Ali. Her family has been in the United States for 3 years now. She is a 6th grader at a middle school here in Denver. She, like many of the other young girls, is very interested in creating jewelry.
At first I was afraid that the girls would all want to keep what they made, but most of them were eager to see which pieces would sell. They constantly asked, "How much do you think this one will go for? Let's sell it for $10." These girls have great ideas and talent.
To the right are three more girls whose families are from Somalia, Momina, Khadiga, and Batula. Within the next few weeks, we are hoping we can bring more of the older teenagers into this project. The interest is definitely there. It is just hard for the girls to all gather in the same place when they all live in different areas of town. They all did wonderful and will be a great addition to the group.
Today was a big day--we presented the women with their envelopes of cash for the items they've sold so far. The envelopes were fancy and personalized to make the moment a bit more special. Applause and pride all around. Haiffaa suggested that the women should be giving Anna and I a cut of the profits for the work we do. The day will come when a percentage of sales goes back into the "business," but not yet and certainly never to us.
We made stretch bracelets today. I thought it would be a good confidence booster, especially for those who've struggled with crimps and findings. Who doesn't appreciate instant gratification? The students were prolific in their bracelet production, especially Anna's teen group (which may have skewed a little pre-teen today). Those of us doing the teaching are trying very hard to convey the concept of "This is just practice--you can do it over."
Today was also "critique and quality control day." This was a tough thing because anyone who makes jewelry will tell you how personal the process is. Overall, I would say that the discussion went well and the women clearly understood what kind of changes they need to make--as well as design tweaks--in the future. Actually, the women were very eager to know how to make their work better, and I don't know that all artists would have been so open minded in that situation.
No class next week as it will be Eid al Fitr, the end of Ramadan. This is a huge holiday for the Muslim women in our group. We hope that the students will be more focused after Ramadan wraps up--this holy time has had its own demands that have kept many of our students busy with other things. Can you imagine taking jewelry classes in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day?
We hope to scope out some pre-holiday craft fair possibilities this week so we know how much jewelry we need to plan for in the immediate future. So much to do, and only 24 hours in a day...less if we sleep.
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
There are not enough hours in the day for anyone working on this project.
Sunday, September 30, 2007
I can't wait to let the women know that they are officially in business. This should give a big boost to the motivation level of those women who haven't yet made anything to sell.
Let's hear it for the farmer's market!
Saturday, September 29, 2007
Our first foray into the public eye had mixed results. Two of my coworkers and my boss took turns getting everything set up and then staffing the booth. They did a great job, especially since they aren't involved in the project and they were recruited at the last minute. When I got there, the weather went bonkers. We were besieged by 30 MPH winds!! It was EZ-Up canopy carnage. I've worked a lot of festivals, and I've never seen anything like it.
I spent most of my time hanging onto the canopy, which eventually almost decapitated a very nice woman who was shopping for a necklace. The wind was relentless and unbearable. We had to shut down by 2:00.
Despite this, we sold jewelry! We talked to people! They learned something new and were thrilled to hear about what we're doing. Even better, the two guys selling handmade pine-branch furniture in the space next to us were fascinated by the whole thing. They asked if they could make some beads for us--maybe a display. How fabulous is that??
Tomorrow is the farmer's market, and that will surely get a lot of traffic. I just checked the weather forecast, and there is no wind predicted at all. Hallelujah!
Friday, September 28, 2007
Should you find yourself in the Stapleton area of Denver on Sunday morning(9/30), look for us at the farmer's market in the Town Center near the fountain. We'll be sharing space with cabbages and other produce being sold by the Somali Bantu Farming Project, one of our sister organizations. If you're in the neighborhood, stroll on by and check out our goodies. Haiffaa herself will be on hand to tell you about the jewelry and the project.
Wish us luck!
Monday, September 24, 2007
Haiffaa approached me after class today and somberly asked if she could talk to me. I smiled and asked her what was on her mind. She reached into her pocket and held out eight dollars in cash, a five dollar bill and three ones.
She looked at the money and then looked at me and said, “Do you know what this is?” Since Anna and I had set up a fairly standard pricing system for the jewelry, I took a guess and said, “Did you sell a necklace, Haiffaa?” She said that on Saturday, Anna stopped by her apartment to tell her that Susan (another program coordinator) had bought and paid for one of Haiffaa’s pieces.
Haiffaa said she took the money from Anna and just stared at it. Anna asked her if it was OK—had we charged too little? Haiffaa assured her it was fine. After Anna left, Haiffaa closed the door and started to cry. She told me that she cried and cried for a long time. She held the eight dollars in her hand and thought about her life until now.
Haiffaa explained that as an only child in a well-off family in Iraq, she had never lacked for anything. Whatever needs she had were met almost as soon as she expressed them. When she got married, she settled into life as a housewife and continued to be comfortable in her living situation. She said that for thirty years, the most satisfying things she did were to raise her kids and keep a nice home. She said she decorated her house and spent time deciding how to arrange the pictures on the wall. She never needed or wanted a job, and, in fact, had never even considered the possibility of working.
Haiffaa said that when she and her family fled Iraq, they were forced to go quickly and with nothing. She held her hands out, palms up, one about a foot higher than other. She said, gesturing with the lower hand, that it was one thing to start off down here, poor and living in a camp and then continuing to struggle as a refugee, but it was another whole thing entirely to go from up here (she gestured with the upper hand) to down there in a matter of days. Haiffaa picked up the container of bottled water on my desk and said, “You can’t even take this. Then you know you are leaving to start with nothing.”
And so it was that Haiffaa found herself staring at eight dollars in her hand on a Saturday afternoon. She said, “I can’t tell you how the feelings inside of me came up. I looked at this money and I didn’t see eight dollars; for me it is like eight million. For the first time in my life, these hands, my hands, made something for me. I did something not as a mother, not as a refugee, but just me, for me, my work.” She pointed at the center of her chest and continued, “I have this pride, this feeling, and I can’t explain it. This eight dollars, it means everything right now. It tells me I can do something and make my own money. This is my first money I made. I can never spend this eight dollars. I have to keep it and show it—I must show it to the other women so they know how this feels and it is real.” She told me that she stood with her back against the door for what seemed like an hour, praying that no one would disturb her so she could fully savor this moment.
Haiffaa’s eyes had long since welled up with tears and they were spilling down her cheeks. She spoke with a great deal of emotion, and I understood that it wasn’t her pride that was making her feel this way so much as what this eight dollars signified for her. At 53 years of age, she had just experienced the first taste of self-sufficiency, the knowing that she had just proved something to herself about her own strength, determination, and nascent sense of accomplishment. It was so much more than her first pay, and significantly more than a handful of damp dollar bills. When I look at the women in this crafts group and I think about their lives, their histories, the challenges and horrors they’ve overcome and the challenges they’re facing now, I have to wonder: How can we possibly estimate the true value of eight dollars? --SM
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Khadiga: Darfur, Sudan
Prefers bright beads in a variety of shapes
Haiffaa: Baghdad, Iraq
Haiffaa's elegant designs are evidence of her cosmopolitan sensibilities.