This is the first in a series of posts that tell the stories of our students. As we have gotten to know them, we are inspired by their courage. Their struggles in their home countries were immense, and their reasons for coming to the United States varied. They have overcome great hurdles in their journey to freedom and continue to experience many challenges in their new home. As we hear more details of their stories and reflect on their courage and tenacity, we at Make Welcome are motivated to continue providing opportunities for our students to learn a new skill, earn extra income, develop friendships, build community, and feel the practical, lived-out love of Jesus.
The first student whose story we share was one of the first Burmese refugee women that I (Beth) met. I was visiting an ESL class and sat next to C. We began to talk and as I asked questions about her family and her home, she began to cry. She couldn’t really tell me why she was crying. I don’t think she knew enough English to really explain, but she was clearly sad and lonely. We talked some more and prayed together. That meeting led to visits in her home and a growing friendship. On one visit, I took a quilt that I was making for my mother. When she saw it, she said she wanted to learn how to sew. That conversation was one of the many “sparks” that led to starting Make Welcome. So, it seems fitting to share C’s story as the first of our Artisan Profiles.
Note: We have been given permission by each of the students to share their stories with you and we have asked them to read over what is shared here to make sure we are accurately understanding and reporting what they have told us. Thanks for reading.
C married her husband, S, in 2005 in Burma. They lived in Tedim in Chin state in the western part of Burma. In September of that same year, S had to flee the country. In their home village army soldiers would sometimes come and demand money from the villagers. If the villagers did not give the money that was demanded - and most could not because they were very poor - the soldiers would beat them, destroy their homes, or steal their crops or livestock. In addition, the army had a regular practice of taking men, young and old, from their homes and forcing them to work for the army. In order to escape this fate, S fled from his home. He spent 5 days and nights on a boat, traveling only at night and hiding out in the day. They had no lights on the boat to avoid being seen and had very little food. When S and the others with him arrived in their country of refuge, they were apprehended by the police and put in jail because they did not have the proper papers. S spent more than a year in jail before the UNHCR was able to get him released. He spent 2 more years in this country before finally being processed as a refugee and flown to his new home in the United States in 2009.
During this time, C lived at home with her parents and helped them. She did not know where her husband was. She did not know if he was dead or alive. She had no way of finding out anything about him and he had no way of contacting her. When S finally arrived in the United States in 2009, he was finally able to write to C and tell her that he had been given refugee status and was in the United States. She received that letter in the mail and was overjoyed to finally know that her husband was alive and living as a refugee in the US!
S began the process of bringing C, his wife, to the US. This process took more than a year and they were finally reunited after being separated for 5 years. The first time they saw each other since 2005 was when C arrived at the airport in Charlotte in December, 2010. They were so happy to be together again after five long years of hardship, uncertainty, and struggle.
When C arrived in the United States, she and S were married in a church wedding, which they had not had in Burma. Since then they have added three beautiful children, a daughter and two sons, to their family.
C said that one of the hardest things about being a newcomer to this country is learning the language. She knew some English from her studies in Burma and she reads it well, but she has difficulty at time understanding. She was able to participate for a time in ESL classes, but now that she has three children and no transportation, it is very difficult to go to ESL classes. Also, since most classes do not offer childcare, she is unable to attend.
One of her other great concerns is one that she shares with mothers everywhere - how will she raise her children well. The stress of being at home with three small children without the support of an extended family is very hard for her. Her apartment is small and there is nowhere her children can just go outside to play unless she goes with them. She is very excited that her in-laws and her husband’s sister and two brothers, who he has not seen since 2005, will be arriving in Charlotte in March. She is glad her children will be able to know their grandparents. She is also happy that they will be able to help with babysitting so that she can again attend ESL classes and improve her English.
C has been a student at Make Welcome since it began. She was able to purchase her own sewing machine last year through Make Welcome’s Sewing Machine Sponsorship program and she enjoys sewing at home when she is able to. She has especially enjoyed making pillow covers and would like to learn how to make a quilt. In the fall of 2014, she was very happy to be able to sew scarves, embellished hand towels and other items that were sold through Journey Home. When she received her first check for the money she had earned from sewing, she was very, very excited and happy. She used the extra income to buy new shoes and a winter coat for her son.
She is very thankful for her Make Welcome teachers and childcare helpers and for her classmates. She had met only one of the other women in class before she began attending and has enjoyed these new friendships. She likes the way the women are able to talk and encourage each other in class. We at Make Welcome are so glad to have C as a student and friend. Our hope is that her involvement in the sewing class will continue to help her feel more "at home" in her new country.
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We didn’t have our Make Welcome class this week. We usually schedule class for three of the four Fridays each month and take one week off. While we’d love to have class every week, we do need time to plan, prepare, and do other behind the scenes work.
The word to describe this week for me is collaboration. Make Welcome was invited to participate in the first of the Building Integrated Communities lunch forums hosted by Project 658, a refugee services organization that has just opened a center here in Charlotte. The lunch was an opportunity to meet and connect with others who are working in the refugee community here and find ways to support, encourage, and collaborate to serve the community. Over lunch, we talked at our tables a bit about what it means to build an integrated community and we did a lot of connecting! We met people that work in education and housing, people who help non-profits get started, and those who work with special needs kids. We met another craft entrepreneur and shared some ideas about ways we might work together. We heard about the refugee youth programs and a catering school. Finally, we listened as a refugee couple from Ethiopia told their personal story of the struggles, obstacles, and joys in coming to this country. I expect that every person at the lunch walked away encouraged. I know my head was buzzing with ideas about how Make Welcome might be a part of a thriving, integrated, healthy community here in our city.
That time of connecting with others is important as we find our way. We continue to define what we are doing by trying ideas, listening to our students, discerning needs and desires, and stepping out. Hearing what others are doing, and seeing ways we might glean from their experience, benefit from their wisdom, and perhaps even partner with them gives us a wider vision for the work of Make Welcome. We have a sewing class, yes. But, it is so much more.
That is collaboration on a larger scale. This week, I (Beth) have been collaborating on a smaller scale, too. As we design products to be sewn in our Make Welcome classes and sold through Journey Home crafts, I have to make samples. This involves taking ideas we have and sewing them. I have to figure out how, for example, to sew a rice bag wrist clutch, and then work out the best way to teach the women how to do it. I have to break down and order the steps and determine what skills are needed to make this item. I have to develop a teaching plan and make sure I am not skipping important details.
I have found that to be a good teacher, I need to learn and practice and explore. Sewing samples gives me the opportunity to do this. I am also a quilter and this work helps me be a better teacher (I hope!) It was in my quilting that collaboration on small scale happened this week. I am currently working on a project that requires me to make a quilt with a limited set of fabrics. As I've worked with on this quilt, I've been posting pictures online. I've gotten feedback from others and today, a friend even dropped everything she was doing and came over to help me figure out a quilt design. It was so helpful to have another set of eyes and another brain to help me think through the design. When it was time for my friend to leave, we were both refreshed by our collaboration and I was further along the path toward a finished quilt.
Collaboration is so important – in big and small ways. As I think about the women in our Make Welcome class, I want the efforts of this week to make a difference for them. I want the connections we made at the lunch to be helpful to the women. I also want them to experience the joy of creative collaboration as their sewing skills increase and their creative confidence expands. I want them to enjoy getting together with others to try out ideas and reach for creative solutions – in their sewing work and in the bigger challenges they face in life. How I hope and pray that Make Welcome will continue to be a place that fosters this kind of creative, encouraging, collaborative community.
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