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Monday, September 29, 2008

Swept from the Himalayas

A Little Something is growing into a big something. Word is spreading throughout the refugee community here about our endeavor. Although we worked primarily with African women a year ago, we have diversified rather quickly as new groups have been included in the U.S. refugee resettlement program.

We barely got started with the Burmese Karen weavers when the Bhutanese started to arrive. A word about the Bhutanese. This group is almost exclusively ethnic Nepali. When the Bhutanese government enacted a policy to maintain an ethnic balance favorable to the ethnic majority, the ethnic Nepalis, or Lhotsampas, were forced to leave Bhutan. Most fled to Nepal where they have been living for the last 16 years. Through the United Nations’ refugee resettlement program, more than half of this population will be permanently resettled in the United States. Click here for a brief overview of the Lhotsampas’ culture and refugee situation, and click here for the addendum that gives addition cultural information (it’s quite fascinating).

The Bhutanese have been arriving here in Denver for a few months now. We found out that the women are skilled in several crafts, including jewelry making, weaving, knitting, and crochet. Several of the women wanted more information about A Little Something, so we scheduled a meeting. With the other groups, organizing meetings has been a bit of a struggle, as the women have shown little interest in organizing themselves this way. We were in for a surprise.

When meeting time came around, we were ready to go…almost. We were expecting eight women, but 24 showed up. It was disconcerting but exciting at the same time.

The group was lively, to say the least. My head was swimming with details as I tried to remember the do’s and don’ts of working with this culture…Caste system…age…more. The women all wanted to speak at once. They had dozens of questions, and, unlike our other groups, wanted to let us know that they were quite interested in learning to be businesswomen.

As the meeting concluded, seven of the knitters set out with Jaime and me to immediately embark on a field trip. Seven wasn’t a random number—it was the number of people we could fit into our two cars. Who knew we needed a bus? We grappled with seatbelts and automatic locks, and when everyone was properly secured, we headed off to buy yarn at The Lamb Shoppe (say it out loud and you’ll get the joke).

I’m pretty sure the employees at the shop weren’t expecting so much activity on an otherwise-uneventful Thursday afternoon. The women swept into the shop in a wave of brightly colored saris, a human bouquet that was chattering excitedly.

The next hour was spent touching yarn, comparing colors and discussing texture, looking at crochet hooks, choosing knitting needles, and carefully selecting just the right supplies for each person’s first project. There were a lot of questions…”Can I get this?” “I don’t know which needles to get. I can get both? Really?” “What size needles do I need for this yarn?” “Can I really make anything I want?”

In the midst of this, Jaime and I picked out yarn for our other knitters and for A Little Something’s supply stock. We reveled in the fun of it, the rich colors and sumptuous feel of alpaca, cotton, and fine wool. A few skeins quickly became armloads of yarn.

After the shopping was finished, Jaime and I took the women to the nearest major bus stop. As I approached the intersection, the bus was pulling up to the curb. I swung into the gas station so the women could get out of my car safely. They didn’t want to miss the bus, so they tried their best to wiggle out of the SUV in a hurry—no easy feat in a sari. From the rearview mirror, I watched them scurry toward the bus in a flurry of colorful dresses, arms filled with pink plastic bags full of yarn and knitting needles.

A bell was dinging in my car telling me that a door was open. I assessed the situation and saw that all of the doors had been left open by my passengers. I needed to move because another car was trying to ease around my Jeep to get into the station. Then I looked again. The driver, a woman with long blonde hair, was laughing good-naturedly at the scene before her. It probably was a little different than what one normally expects to see on a trip to the Conoco.

The women were so excited to start working on their projects, I would bet that several are probably well along in their creations. Jaime and I—and the women at the Lamb Shoppe—are all eager to see what our knitters have made with their first supplies.

Here is a slide show of the meeting and the yarn-buying excursion. Enjoy.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Many hands make light(er) work

Labor Day has passed, school is back in session, and the smell of craft-fair season is in the air. There is a lot to do, a lot to organize.

Back in July, several friends of A Little Something stepped in to take over booth duty at a big event on a very, very hot day. They were a bit taken aback by how much work goes into hauling all of the booth supplies, setting up, breaking down, and loading out. It gave Katrina an idea.

Since our project started a year ago, many people have asked to join us at our group sessions with the refugee women. We've had to explain that we were forced to abandon the "sewing circle" concept very early on. The logistics of scheduling, transportation, and childcare made us rethink how and where we could work with all of the participants. Some people wanted only this group/gathering type of involvement, but there were still other people who continued to say, "Well, when you find something that you need help with, just ask."

And so we asked. Anna and I invited would-be helpers to spend an afternoon helping us fix jewelry, tag, price, sort beads, sort more beads, organize supplies, and more. We made it a potluck and got to work.

There were nine of us all together--ten if you count my husband--plus two dogs. It was a glorious Sunday to be outside with good people. Anna, Haiffaa, Lisa, Katie, Katrina, Christy, Slavica, Susan, Leo, and me. And Ginger and Phoenix (who, I might mention, didn't work very hard, especially considering they are both working breeds).

If anyone had thought they acquired insight into our process at the craft fair, today they realized that the sales are just a fraction of what it takes to keep us humming along. Our helpers worked more like machines than elves as they considered what happens after the donated materials come in and before jewelry is sold. More than this, Slavica summed up what everyone was thinking just after entering the front door: "Oh my gosh. This has totally taken over your house!" Yes, I am keenly aware of that.

In an attempt to bring some order to the chaos, we all worked like busy bees for hours. Haiffaa was unusually quiet, but she was surrounded by food and drink, and must have been feeling her Ramadan fast very strongly while sitting among us.

Looking around at all of the activity buzzing around us, I was struck by how lucky we, as a group, are to have such good friends. We have friends who spread the word about our project via blogs, Websites, emails, and newsletters. We have friends who tell us about grants, supplies, shopping, and upcoming sales. We have friends who send us beads and wire and findings and fiber and storage boxes and magazines and books. We have friends who bless us with cash. Without our friends, A Little Something wouldn't be anything at all.

Everyone agreed that it was a fun afternoon. Even Ginger and Phoenix enjoyed the day(although we're still not sure who licked a little icing off of the brownies). Katrina suggested that we make this a monthly event, but that if monthly is too much to coordinate, meeting every three months would certainly be a possibility. As I was thinking, "Oh, nobody is going to want to do this with us every month," everyone else was happily agreeing with Katrina.

So, here's to our friends, our support and supporters. I can't imagine how we would get along without you.