By Genevieve Bookwalter
The six refugee women stood in line holding short, round flower vases, waiting to stuff foam inside and pour water over the top before filling them with greens and blooms.
The instructor, floral designer Natalie Pappas, wore a short-sleeve shirt spotted with giant sunflowers and explained how to fill the foam with silver-leafed dusty miller and shiny salal greenery to build a base for the tulips and ornamental kale to come.
The training was part of the West Town neighborhood floral shop Flowers for Dreams’ support for RefugeeOne, a 34-year old Uptown neighborhood organization that helps thousands of refugees each year as they arrive from all over the world and acclimate to life in the Windy City.
With Valentine’s Day around the corner, “about every floral shop in the area will be hiring seasonal workers,” Pappas said.
Many will need extra staff to prep vases with greenery.
“A lot of times that’s how people get into the floral industry,” Pappas said. “That’s how I started.”
Flowers for Dreams donates 25 percent of profits to a local nonprofit each month, and RefugeeOne was its January recipient.
Its support has grown from writing a check to offering the free design class to asking customers to sponsor bouquets welcoming refugee families when they arrive in Chicago.
In December, staff greeted a Syrian family of seven after their airplane landed at O’Hare International Airport.
“That’s one of the coolest things we’ve ever done, even if we had to wait four hours for them to get through customs,” said Steve Dyme, Flowers for Dreams’ co-founder and CEO.
Most in a recent floral design class said they had been in the country for a few months and were looking for jobs, primarily in hospitality.
The afternoon training focused on basic floral skills: arranging a boutonniere, a tied bouquet and a vase of cut flowers.
There was no goofing off in this class. The women were focused and quiet as they pieced their creations together.
“I’m feeling very happy to have the experience,” said Odette Osheli, 24. She arrived in Chicago from Congo about five months ago with her husband and their son, 4, and daughter, 2. She’s studying English and hospitality, looking for a job and enduring her first Midwest winter.
“In Africa we didn’t see the snow,” Osheli chuckled.
She grew serious when asked why she left her home country: “Here you can have a job and survive. There it’s not easy.”
Classmate Muna Mahmud, 26, arrived with her 7-year old daughter about four months ago after spending five years as a refugee in Egypt from her home country of Eritrea in Africa. She, too, is looking for a hospitality job.
“I want to learn how to use flowers,” said, Mahmud, a petite woman with warm brown eyes, easy smile and a shimmery gray headscarf. “I love to give nice, beautiful flowers.”