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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Full circle and a bit dizzy, Part II

Writing in the wee hours of the morning usually means I stray from the thought that prompted me to blog in the first place. At a more reasonable hour, the original thought comes back, perhaps with some lucidity.

It was deja vu. Saturday had a familiar but distant feel. I was back in the community room at Grace. Refugee women were eagerly leaning in to see what I was demonstrating with my tools and somewhat shaky hands. I am self-conscious about my hand tremor, and the original group of women don't even see it anymore. New women, new self-conscious moment for Sharon.

I picked up each tool as we needed it, and I said its name slowly and clearly. Round nose pliers. Repeat: Round...nose...pliers. Say it with me.

A few minutes later I asked the name of the tool and was met with puzzled looks. I drew a circle in the air. I touched my nose. "Circle face tool!" Reviewing material is so underrated.

Jump ring. I think they pretend to forget just to see me act it out. A plump middle-aged woman jumping around is not to be missed.

We laughed a lot. I cursed the hand tremor, especially on a day when there was no one else there to demonstrate what I cannot so easily. The women asked the same questions those first women asked in the summer of 2007. The mistakes were the same, and the smiles born from success were just as beautiful.

I wanted to be a better teacher. I wanted the women to feel satisfied with their lesson. I wanted them to fall madly in love with jewelry making right from the start. This was familiar territory, but no less exciting on the return trip.

I could see it so clearly: It was possible that this project that started with four women and grew like a healthy, loved baby, could keep repeating itself. This scene unfolding in the community room really could happen again and again. The faces and cultures would change, of course, but the ideas that brought the first group together were sound and they were heartfelt.

Creating beauty in the wake of horror soothes a place deep within the spirit. Learning something new and persisting despite challenges builds confidence. A woman who earns money for herself sees new possibilities in a world fraught with uncertainty. Empowerment is more than just a trendy word; it is a fact and in our project, the women themselves are helping those who come after, who will help the next group and so on.

Here's to many more Saturdays explaining the use of the circle face tool.

Life beyond beads

Fatuma sat in on the Saturday beginner's lesson. She was very quiet despite my attempts at engaging her in conversation.

Fatuma has come a long way in her jewelry-making skills. Still, she needed the refresher lesson. She tried so hard to get everything perfect, she started making more mistakes in frustration. She really was doing well, and by the time she was ready to leave, her work was OK. She said she had something else she needed to do, and out the door she went.

Once the Bhutanese women had tidied up, I headed outside and put my things in the car. I spotted activity in the community garden, so I wandered over to see who was there. Htee Ku Paw, Fatuma, and a couple of the other ALS women have plots in the garden.

Fatuma was hard at work hacking at the dry, compacted soil. Watching her, I saw a stark contrast to the peaceful and gentle jewelry making we had just done together. Fatuma was now bent over, working extremely hard. The jewelry lesson and all things bead-related seemed so frivolous now.

Fatuma's work was unbelievably difficult. She showed me the plot she had last year, where someone had already prepped the soft soil. Fatuma's new area had obviously been neglected. It didn't look promising in terms of drainage or sun exposure. This year's drought hadn't helped the soil any, either.

I noticed that Fatuma was wearing flip-flops. She rubbed her hands and I saw that she had no work gloves. When I said that she needed better gardening shoes, Fatuma looked at her feet for a second and just shrugged. I scanned the garden and realized that almost everyone there--the Somali Bantu group--was working in flip-flops and no one had gloves. It seemed particularly hard for the kids. They haven't grown up farming so their hands are the soft hands of school kids who watch TV when they get home. One of Zahara Mahmud's sons was in obvious pain. Like Fatuma, Zahara also worked without comfort items as she swung a pick into the hard soil. Another jewelry maker in need of decent footwear and some sturdy work gloves.

When I asked Fatuma what she planned to grow in her garden, she said, "Everything!" Upon further questioning, Fatuma decided she wanted to plant cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, broccoli, and maybe corn, plus a few things she can't remember in English. I looked at her woefully neglected garden space and wondered if it would be ready for planting in May. I asked Fatuma where her children were. Why weren't they helping? I thought, This family desperately needs the food that will come out of this garden. Shouldn't everyone contribute to Fatuma's gardening efforts?

Fatuma chuckled and told me that this was her "alone" time; it was quiet for her head. That makes sense--she is the mother of eight children.

Flip-flops. No work gloves. Shared tools. I will never complain about how hard my own garden work is. I work in luxury compared to the A Little Something women scratching at the earth for the same reason they make jewelry: So their families can eat.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Full circle and a bit dizzy

We asked the women who received bead boxes and tools at our big meeting to get together this past Saturday for a jewelry-making lesson. Anna was otherwise busy, Jaime was getting ready for a conference, and Susan had chauffeuring duty to tend to. That left only Sharon. No problem. It's only a couple of women...

Five women were waiting when I arrived, and two more came later. We went over making simple loops for earrings and such, crimping with a crimp tool, attaching findings, and more. It was like speed-reading. We covered several lessons worth of material in a couple of hours. OK, three-and-a-half hours.

The Bhutanese women are jewelry animals. They don't want to wait, so they've been guessing about the technical aspects of jewelry making. Their guesses have been mostly wrong, unfortunately. One teacher was woefully inadequate to work with this incredibly eager group. On the other hand, they have an excellent sense of color, and their designs are gorgeous. I hope that going forward we'll have more teachers to work with this very lovely and spirited group.

Fatuma and Khadiga sat in. I was surprised to see them waiting at the table. I tried to enlist their teaching help, but they wanted to review the skills they'll need to teach on Friday.

Friday. Anna, Susan, Katrina, Fatuma, Khadiga and I--and possibly Haiffaa and Sharifo, are going to do a daring and experiential presentation at the TESOL conference, which happens to be in Denver this year. You can read about our presentation topic here. Wish us luck. This has the potential to be great or else an unmitigated disaster.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Loaves and fishes

For some time now, we've been hoping to have a big meeting with all of the women who participate in A Little Something. After careful planning, we came up with a plan to invite all current members and new women who wanted to join so they could meet in one room and help string together a plan for the future of the project.

We hoped that at least 20 women would come. We sent invitations via mail and word of mouth. We ordered lunch, made activity kits, and hoped we wouldn't be there alone.

We were so not alone. The room was packed. As more and more women arrived, Katrina, Anna, Jaime, Susan, Jean, and I started to get nervous. We didn't have materials for this many women. We certainly hadn't ordered lunch for this many women. How were we ever going to stretch out the supplies and food to accommodate all of these women? Yikes!

It was a busy, creative day. The women mingled, talked, learned about the program, and tried their hand at making stretch bracelets. We distributed jewelry making supplies, lots of yarn, weaving fiber, advice, and encouragement. The rush of women wanting to get started was overwhelming.

In the end, we abandoned the concept of project kits and just dumped beads onto styrofoam trays, two per table. IT fostered sharing and cooperation. There was enough stretch cord so that everyone could make a bracelet and take a spool of the cord home. Somehow, Katrina and Jaime made food for 35 transform into lunch for 50. Don't ask me how they pulled this off but they did and no one walked away unfed. It was some sort of crafty miracle.

Now we just need to conjure up clones of ourselves so we can manage 50 women, go out and give jewelry-making lessons, help the knitters get on track, figure out our ever-perplexing weaving fiber confusion, keep track of everyone and what they're making and what they need to keep making it, and, and, and...I think my head is going to explode.

We need 19-strand wire. We need beads. We need crimp tubes. We need everything. Mostly, though, we need time. Hey, we were able to defy the laws of physics and matter with our beads and a catered lunch, so who knows what we can do with the laws of time? Can someone please conjure up Dr. Einstein?

Here are the first pictures from Saturday. The women here are from Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Burma, and Bhutan. Special thanks to Beadalon for helping us out with rolls of Elasticity cord.

Team A Little Something kicks off the meeting.

Getting acquainted across cultures.

Susan getting caught up with Haiffaa, an orignal Beadwoman.

Meeting our sisters.

More mingling.

Bhutan checks in.

Cooperative bead stringing with Yashoda and friends.

Their moms couldn't come, but the Bantu girls joined the group.

Htee Ku Paw tries a different craft in the company of Bhutanese friends.

Sharing laughter and wrist sizes.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Find us on Facebook!

We are pleased to announce that A Little Something is now on Facebook. Find our page at A Little Something (The Denver Refugee Women's Craft Initiative) and become a fan today!

Monday, March 2, 2009

There is really no shortage of media coverage about good people doing extraordinary things. I make a point of watching the last five minutes of the national news every Friday night--any broadcast network will do--because those few minutes of the week highlight the contributions of normal people making a remarkable difference in the world.

CNN devotes a whole year of stories to this concept, culminating in distinguishing honors for a group of ten people every year. Not all are from the U.S., but some are. The reason I mention the geography comes from a bit of frustration I tend to harbor. In the course of the year, the volunteer coordinators in the Colorado Refugee Network attend nonprofit fairs throughout the metro area. When people approach our booth for information about our programs, we are frequently asked the same question: "Do you have volunteer positions overseas?" Or, with a measure of disappointment, "Oh. So, you only help people who are here?"

All three of us are quick to point out that a refugee arriving on American shores has just begun a whole new struggle. There are plenty of ways to contribute to world peace and international relations right in the town where you live. Many people are surprised to find out refugees are here at all. If you aren't aware of their presence, it's because they're often all but invisible...Except to those of us who devote our waking hours to this particular cause.

Even those who are familiar with the refugee resettlement program are often unaware of just how truly grassroots most of the programs are. Our programs cannot exist without community support, church partnerships, devoted teachers, tutors for adults and kids, mentors, first friends, a small army of volunteers, plus all of the people who donate money, furniture, household goods, and time setting up apartments and taking refugees to their many appointments. Refugee resettlement works because it takes a community to welcome a new one to the mix, and communities have a way of knowing what to do.

One of CNN's 2009 Heroes is Carolyn Manning of Phoenix, Arizona. I'll say this for CNN: The network has consistently shown a commitment to telling the story of refugees and the resettlement process. That Ms. Manning was chosen to be honored by CNN this year is one more example of CNN's understanding that this work matters.

Carolyn Manning started an organization called The Welcome to America Project. Her program assists newly arrived refugees by furnishing apartments and providing support and guidance in the time immediately after arrival. To find out more about The Welcome to America Project and Carolyn Manning, click here to visit CNN's Website. This link takes you to an entire web page with videos dedicated to this topic.

Congratulations to Carolyn Manning and her team of volunteers. They do the same work as many other people assisting refugees throughout the U.S., so as a 2009 CNN Hero, Ms. Manning carries the torch for all of you who volunteer your time and open your hearts to refugee newcomers every day--even if it's by donating beads and craft supplies to A Little Something. To the volunteers in refugee resettlment programs around the world, congratulations to you, too, for your fine work! You are all my heroes every day.