It Takes A Village: Akron Area Women Help Bhutanese Refugees Learn Sewing, Sell Products

By Paula Schleis
The Akron Beacon Journal

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Six years ago, a group of Ohio women formed “DAWN Creations.” The organization is now composed of about 10 volunteers who teach Bhutanese refugees how to work an electric sewing machine and then sell their handmade totes, bags, belts, aprons and scarves at area gift shops and craft events.

The Akron Beacon Journal

When Dhan Maya Magar first arrived in the United States in 2014, there wasn’t a whole lot of time to miss her old treadle sewing machine.

America is a steep learning curve for someone raised in a Third World refugee camp.

The 30-year-old Bhutanese woman had spent two decades at a Nepal site she was not allowed to leave, a primitive life that included living with five other people in a bamboo hut with a dirt floor, no electricity or running water, and daily food rations of rice and vegetables that she cooked over an open fire.

So on her arrival in America, the young wife and mother, who was also charged with caring for elderly in-laws, was kept on her toes. In addition to English classes, she had to learn how to operate everything from a stove to a flushing toilet to a television remote control — not to mention the overwhelming experience of navigating a First World grocery store.

Still, a group of Summit County women suspected something was missing in the lives of Magar and other Bhutanese women:

Creative expression, self-confidence and the pride that comes from earning one’s own income.

Six years ago, they formed DAWN Creations, now composed of about 10 volunteers who teach Bhutanese refugees how to work an electric sewing machine and then sell their handmade totes, bags, belts, aprons and scarves at area gift shops and craft events.

During twice-monthly classes at Patterson Community Park Center in North Akron, the women also get a rare opportunity to socialize at a time when their limited English keeps them isolated.

DAWN President Manju Rastogi, a 1969 immigrant from India, and Vice President Gabi Oberdorfer, who came to the U.S. from Germany in 1953, know well the benefits of having a network of friends.

“I knew the women were going to have a lot of issues just mainstreaming if people didn’t step in to help them get over a lot of small humps that you come across,” Rastogi said.

“We get them to come and hang out with us and it gives us a chance to answer their questions,” Oberdorfer added. “For instance, these women have never baked before. We can teach them how to make cookies. They go to a store and see rows and rows and rows of cleaning supplies and they say, ‘What do you use all this for?” So many things are a mystery to them, and if you don’t have the chance to interact with people, who do you ask?”

In its name, DAWN — Developing Alternatives for Women in New communities — hints at its mission to teach the women income-producing skills.

These aprons were for sale at a recent open house to promote Bhutanese immigrants creating handicrafts to sell as they make their way in the U.S.

That’s why amid the socializing, the sewing machines are humming. A program that started with four students now has 17 women making and selling their products.

They use fabric from traditional sarees that are donated by the Hindu Temple and Asian Indian community so their profit margins remain high. The sewing machines they take home have been donated or purchased with grants from the Knight Foundation and Hillier Family Foundation.

Their finished products are sold at bazaars, Market Path gift store in Akron’s Highland Square, the Kent State University Fashion School Store and at the Akron General Health & Wellness Center in Bath Township, as well as at private in-home parties.

Magar was taught how to use an old-fashioned treadle in the refugee camp, where she made her family’s clothes.

“She’s very passionate about her sewing,” Rastogi said of Magar, whose speaks limited English. “The ones who sewed over there, sewing is something they really enjoyed. But Magar was without it for almost two years.”

Her old sewing machine didn’t get to make the trip when Magar and her family were given the opportunity to resettle in America.

Magar was 9 years old when thousands of Bhutanese citizens of Nepalese ancestry fled or were evicted from their country during an ethnic cleansing campaign. The United Nations set up refugee camps in neighboring Nepal, an impoverished nation that wouldn’t allow the refugees to be repatriated.

With nowhere else to go, the Bhutanese families were trapped in the camps for 20 years. But the camps became unsustainable as their population grew to over 117,000 people.

In 2008, several United Nations member countries — including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, Denmark, New Zealand and Norway — offered the refugees a permanent home.

Magar’s family was split between Australia and Ohio, where the International Institute of Akron has helped resettle 1,905 Bhutanese in the past six years.

Many area agencies, churches and organizations are helping them adjust, among them the Women’s Interfaith Spiritual Heritage (WISH).

In a quiet Cuyahoga Falls residential neighborhood last month, an empty street began filling with cars.

One by one, two by two, WISH members who received emailed invitations walked down the sidewalk and disappeared into a house on the corner.

Pin cushions are some of the many items made by Bhutanese immigrants and sold as a way to make a living.

Inside, a sun room was set up as a temporary store filled with items made by the participants in DAWN Creations. Totes and belts hung from a bar. Evening bags, aprons and silk scarves lined a table. The air was scented from handmade dryer balls and felted soaps. A price list showed costs from $7 to $25.

Bishnu Rai and her aunt, Kamala Rai Subba, who have been in the country for six years but are new to sewing, wore traditional Bhutanese dress and greeted customers in fluent English while answering curious questions about their lives.

Kathy Ress of WISH tries on a handmade infinity scarf at an open house for Bhutanese immigrants selling their products.

Kathy Ress was happy to host the private affair in her home and mingled with guests as they shopped.

“Isn’t it lovely?” she asked another WISH member who was holding up a cross-body bag made of orange silk and chiffon.

Rastogi said the sewing is just the beginning. As DAWN attracts volunteers with other skills, the women may begin learning how to make jewelry or other marketable crafts.

“We will see where it goes,” Rastogi said. “Every month brings something new to the program.”

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