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updated: 11/29/2012 8:40 AM

Re:new offers refugee women fellowship, sewing skills and employment

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  • Nancy Mwendwa, a Re:new employee from Kenya who now lives in Wheaton, looks over items in the store.

       Nancy Mwendwa, a Re:new employee from Kenya who now lives in Wheaton, looks over items in the store.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Re:new founder Rebecca Sandberg shows one of the messenger bags now being featured to raise awareness of refugees.

       Re:new founder Rebecca Sandberg shows one of the messenger bags now being featured to raise awareness of refugees.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Rebecca Sandberg, left, works with Nigora Saidova, a Turkish woman from Russia, as Saidova sews a messenger bag.

       Rebecca Sandberg, left, works with Nigora Saidova, a Turkish woman from Russia, as Saidova sews a messenger bag.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Gulnora Fozilova, a Turkish refugee from Russia, sews a messenger bag at Re:new in Glen Ellyn.

       Gulnora Fozilova, a Turkish refugee from Russia, sews a messenger bag at Re:new in Glen Ellyn.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 

Since arriving in the United States in 2005 as a Turkish refugee from Russia, Gulnora Fozilova has held jobs as housekeeper, waitress and factory worker.

But what she loves most is what she's doing right now -- working with fellow refugees and sewing handbags, aprons, bibs, pillows and a variety of other items to sell in the Re: new store in Glen Ellyn.

"She always dreamed of sewing, even in her own country, and when she came here, her dreams came true," said Rebecca Sandberg, Re:new founder and president, who started the nonprofit organization three years ago to teach refugee women how to sew and to offer them part-time employment.

"We're a little shop that makes a big difference," Sandberg said. "We're not finding that model anywhere else and we believe that it's working."

Located at 250 Pennsylvania Ave., Re:new has about 40 students, 22 employees, and about 40 volunteers who do everything from teaching sewing to maintaining the website.

"Everything is volunteer," said Sandberg, a married mother of three who estimates she spends about 50 hours a week on Re:new. "The only people who get paid are the refugees."

Sandberg said 120 refugee women have gone through the curriculum, which can take anywhere from three weeks to six months depending on the skills they already have and their knowledge of English.

Upon completion, some choose to work from home and others are hired as part-time employees at Re:new. The part-time hours give the women, most of whom have children, flexibility to care for their families. The women are paid on a piecework basis for the items they create for earnings that are above minimum wage, Sandberg said.

"It's a viable supplemental income," she said.

In addition to its own small store and a couple of other local stores that carry its products, Re:new will begin selling items from its website at www.renewproject.org on Dec. 1.

"We can ship anywhere in the U.S.," Sandberg said.

Raising awareness

The organization recently held a fall open house to showcase its new line of "messenger bags." The large handbags are stamped on the inside of the cover with the words, "CARRY THE STORY handmade in the USA, by a woman who sought refuge here."

"Our goal is to bring awareness of the refugee population in America," Sandberg said. "Their stories, strength and courage are stories we need to know."

The world has about 15.4 million refugees who have fled their homelands and cannot return due to a well-founded fear of persecution. Of the roughly 650,000 refugees in the United States, 136,000 are in Illinois and 54,000 in suburban communities, Sandberg said.

Many refugee women have seen family members killed, been raped and long endured difficult living conditions. Those accepted for immigration to the U.S. may receive only 24 hours notice and have to leave other family members behind, Sandberg said.

Fozilova, who now lives with her husband and two sons in Wheaton, said she spent 15 years living in a refugee camp in Russia after her family fled Uzbekistan when she was 9. They were not welcome in Russia, lacked opportunities to improve their lot, and lived in a small house with no indoor plumbing and a wood-burning store.

At Re:new, women such as Fozilova find not only sewing skills and employment, but fellowship with old friends. Many of the women knew each other before they moved to America, Sandberg said. Most of the women Re:new now serves are Turkish and Somalian, but Sandberg said the organization also has had refugees from Bhutan, Burma, Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania and the Congo.

Sandberg made her own acquaintance with refugees during the six years she lived in Kenya as the wife of a relief worker. Unlike many of the spouses of relief workers, Sandberg had no medical skills to contribute and thought she should remedy that. Then she met a group of refugee women living in Nairobi who were taught to sew as part of a micro-enterprise and found her niche in helping design the products they made. She spent five years working with the refugee women before she and her family moved to Wheaton in 2007.

Feeling dispirited and displaced about leaving what had become her home, Sandberg drove to a Target store one cold January night to buy diapers and saw a woman wrapped in an African cloth walking by the side of the road. She followed her to her apartment complex and knocked on the door. The woman welcomed her into an apartment crowded with many children and Sandberg learned she was from Somalia. As she started to leave, the woman said "You can give me job? You see many kids? You can give me job?"

That question stuck with Sandberg and two years later Re:new was born. Started in a 350-square-foot room with five sewing machines, it now occupies a 1,500-square-foot space that includes an office, sewing area and store. Volunteers contributed more than 10,000 hours to the enterprise last year, Sandberg said.

Karen Holwenda of Wheaton, one of the volunteers, comes once a week to teach sewing and help with sewing projects. She said she enjoys seeing the refugee women's progress.

"They are so interested in helping their families out. To have a vehicle they can do that is amazing," she said. "I love sewing. It's just a great environment for everyone."

Nancy Mwendwa knew Sandberg in Kenya and began working full-time at Re:new as a cloth cutter and translator after coming to the United States nearly two years ago. Unlike most of the women, she is not a refugee. At Re:new the women talk, share their lives and sing while they work, she said.

"I love building relationships and that's what Re:new does," she said. "It's a life-changing thing."

Sandberg said Re:new depends on its sales and donations from corporations, churches and individuals for its income. Donations of cloth are accepted, but they must be a minimum of 12-by-12-inches. Products are moderately priced with a small pillow costing $20 and a one-of-a-kind messenger bag $68.

"Everything in our store is made right here," Sandberg said. "We need shoppers."

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