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Sunday, September 30, 2007

A better day

What can I say? Gorgeous weather, decent traffic, lots of interest in the project. On the other hand, our table wasn't there, we were missing part of our display...we improvised and it was fine. What really mattered was this: We sold jewelry! All things considered, we did really well this weekend.

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

Flying jewelry!!!

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

Taking our show on the road!

We're finally going to debut our jewelry collection. The prospect is both exciting and scary, but it will be educational, nonetheless.
On Saturday (9/29), we'll be part of a little street festival in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. If you're in the area, stop by and say hello. We'll be at 38th Ave. and Harlan, about 1/2 mile west of Sheridan, from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00. Our booth is next to the kid's tent.

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

Eight Dollars

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

Dynamic creativity

The women are finally working with a wide variety of the donated beads. We're struggling with finishing techniques as we have no crimp tubes and not nearly enough clasps, but that hasn't held back our designers at all. Take a look!

Khadiga: Darfur, Sudan
Prefers bright beads in a variety of shapes

Haiffaa: Baghdad, Iraq
Haiffaa's elegant designs are evidence of her cosmopolitan sensibilities.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The best laid plans...

Well, it wasn't quite the day we planned, but it wasn't a total loss, either. We forgot that this weekend is the start of Ramadan and our women students had much to do for this most important time. Our class, though small, was very enthusiastic.

We were supposed to debut our "collection" at a community event today, but in the end, nobody was available to work the event. We were stressed and a little bit frantic trying to find a way, but eventually we had to just agree that maybe we weren't really ready yet and this last-minute chaos was divine intervention letting us know that. It was both a disappointment and a relief.

We were able to use this "found" time to organize the merchandise a bit better and price the new jewelry the women made this week. As we went through the newest pieces, it was evident that the women had felt inspired by designs they saw in the magazines and books they borrowed. Their designs are becoming not only more complex, but also more advanced in technical skill. We saw some beautiful sets today, and the women's work continues to reveal a strikingly original flair.

The lesson this morning was about learning to use eyepins and headpins and making twisted loops. It's a little bit ironic, because it's something I've continued to struggle to do well and here I was trying to teach it. By some miracle, the lesson worked, and the students understood that it wasn't a technique to be mastered in 15 minutes. Among the many things we hope the women will gain from this project is a sense of what is and isn't realistic--on many levels.

I can't wait to see the work that evolves from this week's lesson. --SM

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Village Necklace

A few years ago, a well-known politician said that it takes a village to raise a child. I would like to take that thought a little further by saying it takes a village to make a necklace. In this case, the necklace is a metaphor for the Denver Refugee Women's Craft Initiative (or whatever we're calling it today!).

Let's say that the original idea is a piece of beading wire, literally the thread that's going to connect the pieces of the project. The wire isn't really a project, though, until you add something to it. Let's add some resilient and creative refugee women. Those will be focal beads at the center of the necklace.

Next, we have a group of dedicated, hard-working volunteers. Each volunteer contributes something different, so the beads that represent them are unique in color and shape. Some people have come to the project to share the vision, share the news. These are the spacers, bringing together elements of the design.

The necklace picks up some much-needed accents when people step forward and contribute skills or services like Website domain registration (thanks, Josh!), or business advice, or a press release, or an offer to photograph the story, or an invitation to participate in a community event, or counsel regarding how best to manage the project from a cultural perspective.

Tying together all of these more visible beads are the seed beads. Lots and lots of seed beads are really what fill out the necklace and make it substantial. They give it a foundation and a way for all of the other beads to shine. The seed beads are the many people who have dug through their stash of jewelry making supplies--dug very deep, in fact--and lovingly selected, packaged, and mailed their things to us. The seed beads are the people who, after thinking about what they could contribute, decided financial assistance might be the way to go. Without the seed beads, our necklace would be sparse, indeed.

Our necklace is not sparse, though; it is glorious and it isn't even finished yet. We're still adding beads, so the final design has yet to be determined. And me? I think that my cohort, Anna, and I are the clasp and the jump ring. We're trying to work in the background, and if we serve our purpose, then ultimately, we have helped link all of these resources, all of these beautiful beads, and held them together. I am proud to be a small part of a very beautiful necklace. Have you seen the glow of those focal beads?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Let the creativity begin!

Working without a translator was challenging. There weren't enough teachers to go around, especially because our students want to know everything there is to know and they wanted to know it today! How do you use crimps? What are these tools for? How do you make earrings? How do I put this (briolette) in a bracelet? What is this for? What is that for? What's a clasp? Can you show me how to put it on? Can you repeat that?

Except for the student pictured here, the older students have no literacy, so we can't use printed handouts--unless they explain everything in pictures. It takes some time and patience, but explaining by doing actually works.

It's encouraging to see that our group includes some children, five amazing teenage girls, and women ranging in age from 30- to 50-something. At the moment, we have women from Somalia, Sudan, and Iraq in our group, but it looks like we'll soon have women from Burma, too.

The only major glitch today surfaced when we realized we didn't have enough tools to go around. We had only one crimp tool and no chain-nose pliers. We barely had enough crimp tubes, either. Time to start scouring Ebay.

The beaded path to self-sufficiency

This is a blog about a dynamic group of refugee women. If you're not sure what, exactly, a refugee is, you can find a good definition here. Some of the populations that resettle in Denver don't have as large a cultural gap to negotiate as others (say, Russians compared to Sudanese). The group that has had it the hardest in the past 20 years, though, has been the Somali Bantu.

The Bantu were an ethnic minority in Somalia and when the central government collapsed there about 15 years ago, the Bantus' situation went from bad to incomprehensibly bad. They lived in refugee camps for well over a decade before the UN and the governments of several countries concluded that repatriation was never going to be an option, leading to the Bantus' resettlement shortly thereafter.

Prior to resettlement, most Bantu had never lived in a home with electricity, plumbing, or even the smallest modern technology at all. As a population, the Bantu had never been literate, nor was there a written form of their language until fairly recently. Many of the Bantu who resettled here were widows with children. The learning curve was very steep, indeed. Language. Life skills. Literacy. Cultural expectations. Health concerns. It was overwhelming.

About 2 1/2 years ago, a group of volunteers started a Saturday morning language and literacy learning group for women only. We found that the women learned best in a casual, group setting and with no men in the class. The class has been an amazing revelation about potential, determination, human nature, and patience all around.

A couple of months ago, the Bantu women expressed an interest in learning crafts--something they had had access to before the war. One of the volunteers thought bead stringing would be a good way to work on manual dexterity, focus, following instructions, and nurturing creativity (and it was a lot cheaper than finding 20 sewing machines).

I have only been overseeing the Saturday Bantu Ladies' Project at this point--I haven't been teaching this group. I became aware of the beading because of one of the other parts of my job, which is matching volunteer tutors with refugee women who can't attend English classes at school (refugee women from anywhere. Lately, that's lots of Burmese). In my work making home visits to refugee families, I noticed that lots of Somali kids and their moms were wearing simple, beaded bracelets and necklaces. I mean, like, everybody. I found out very soon that the Saturday ladies were totally enamored with making necklaces and bracelets using supplies that the volunteers had scraped together on their own or bought with their own money. Above and beyond the call of duty, for sure.

Now that the students are gaining confidence with their skills in making simple yet pretty beaded jewelry, they are planning to sell their work at the farmer's market where the Bantu community sells produce (much of it grown by themselves in urban gardens). This is a huge step for these women to connect their class to a tangible skill to a way to make a little pocket money. If the group can commit, a micro-loan may be in the future. That's a no-interest loan of a small amount of money to start a little business that fosters self-sufficiency skills.

The whole over-arching goal of the refugee resettlement programs is always self-sufficiency, and that can be a tall order for a group like the Bantu women. Even the married women are cash-poor. Their husbands usually don't give them pocket money, let alone an allowance. The money from the beading project will be 100% earned and kept by the women. Empowerment. Yea!!

You can see a fun 3-minute video clip of our group on YouTube by clicking here. If you can't understand the words to the song, it's "Thank-a-you, thank-a-you, thank-a-you, thank-a-you (repeat in May-May lanugage)." Anyway, these are the women in the Saturday English/Literacy and now Beading group! BTW--singing and dancing like this tends to break out spontaneously in class. It's very encouraging when you're a teacher :-)

I'll be paying regular visits to the class now to show a few jewelry making techniques. Me--teaching jewelry making--who knew? --SM