‘Something With Their Hands’ – Through Courageous Eyes

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This week our feature is about FORAI – Friends of Refugees and Immigrants – a non-profit that provides training and mentorship for refugee women in St. Louis, MO. The participants create handcrafted items to provide supplemental income for their families and move toward starting their own microbusinesses. Not only do they walk alongside, listen, equip, and empower, but FORAI also does this through artistic and expressive means as women create beautiful and useful products.

The Through Courageous Eyes blog series features migrant and refugee artists and is curated by Cecilia Pessoa, LIRS Communications Associate.

static1.squarespaceThe idea for FORAI was born out of Thanksgiving dinner at a welcoming table bringing together North Americans and newly-arrived Nepali-Bhutanese families. As Jennifer Owens, the founder and director of the organization, puts it “FORAI began with a meal.” Two Bhutanese families who had been in the United States for two weeks were invited into Jennifer’s home.

Jennifer writes:

Hearing their stories of being forgotten in refugee camps in Nepal for over fifteen years, after being forced to leave their home in Bhutan in the early ’90’s, left us all both shocked and humbled.

In 2008, the United Nations stepped in and began the process of granting asylum and resettlement to the Nepali-Bhutanese. Around our table sat some of the most recent asylees, full of hope for a new and better life.

And yet despite their glowing hope, what would life realistically look like for Yamo, a widow with two school-aged children, no English and little formal education?

This question would not leave my mind. The Lord did not let me forget these new friends, and the wheels began to turn. Slowly gaining momentum, He brought together people and ideas for a business and ministry partnering with refugee and immigrant women. Our vision for empowering the women, enabling them to earn additional income for their families while producing marketable handcrafts, came together in FORAI (Friends of Refugees and Immigrants).

Lun at work on a project with the company of her son.
Lun at work on a project with the company of her son.

Jennifer says she “could not stop thinking, ‘how will she [her Bhutanese guest] be able to make it here with so few resources?’” The short version of her solution was to empower refugee women to do “something with their hands.” From that beginning, the inspiration for FORAI grew.

Since 2009, FORAI has been fulfilling that vision while working with women from Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, Togo, Kenya, Liberia, and Colombia. Each artisan is paired with a volunteer who works with her on skills including sewing, hand sewing, crocheting, and jewelry making.

Setting up a display of the jewelry, skirts, and scarves.
Setting up a display of the jewelry, skirts, and scarves.

FORAI is now a 501(c)3 non-profit selling their jewelry and textile products online and at festivals, home parties, and local churches. This venture successfully pays these artisans a fair wage for their crafts.

At its heart, FORAI “represents a community of volunteers, artisans, Americans, refugees and immigrants who are ‘coming together to create beauty and opportunity.’” One of these artisans is Lun, who has learned tangible skills and uses them to support her family as well as her husband’s family members, who are still in Burma.

FORAI's hand appliquéd animal bibs, teardrop earrings, and  Kalamkari wrap skirt.
FORAI’s hand appliquéd animal bibs, teardrop earrings, and Kalamkari wrap skirt.

At age 16, Lun fled her village in Chin State, Burma to reach Malaysia. As an undocumented worker, she was poorly paid and lived in fear under the threat of police raids. There she met her husband, Kap, and they had their first son. Then, in September of 2009, the family was resettled in St. Louis, MO.

Unfortunately, Lun and Kap are still separated from both of their families. When Lun thinks of Burma she misses how they “had [their] own house and lands. My parents were farmers.” The family suffered a blow when Kap’s work hours were cut by twenty percent. They were able to manage, however, because of Lun’s steady income from working at FORAI.

Founder and director Jennifer Owens with a group of FORAI artisans.
Founder and director Jennifer Owens with a group of FORAI artisans.

At the heart of what the Friends of Immigrants and Refugees do is clear in their name – they create friendships where people are welcomed and integrated. In their own words, these Friends are:

walking alongside refugee and immigrant women, giving them dignity and a voice so their stories may be heard. We are equipping them with skills, as they make a place for themselves in this new country they now call home. And we are empowering them economically.

To read more about the FORAI story and see their selection of clothing, jewelry, and textiles visit the FORAI Crafts site.

Find all the previous posts in the Through Courageous Eyes series.

Through Courageous Eyes features the artistic work of refugees and migrants. If you would like to showcase your artwork as part of the Through Courageous Eyes series, please contact Cecilia Pessoa at cpessoa@lirs.org.

Banner photo credit: Johanan Ottensooser

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