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updated: 1/18/2013 10:09 AM

Moving Picture: Glen Ellyn shop helps refugee women

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  • Sandberg, left, and volunteer Amy Bauer of Wheaton go over materials at the shop in Glen Ellyn.

       Sandberg, left, and volunteer Amy Bauer of Wheaton go over materials at the shop in Glen Ellyn.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Rebecca Sandberg, 36, is the founder and director of Re: new in Glen Ellyn.

       Rebecca Sandberg, 36, is the founder and director of Re: new in Glen Ellyn.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Rebecca Sandberg sorts through pieces of cloth, donated from Toms-Price furniture store, at her shop Re: new in Glen Ellyn. This store and others donate samples and materials to Re: new, which allows them to make their products.

       Rebecca Sandberg sorts through pieces of cloth, donated from Toms-Price furniture store, at her shop Re: new in Glen Ellyn. This store and others donate samples and materials to Re: new, which allows them to make their products.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Esther Lahtaw of Wheaton, a refugee from Burma, works on a piece at Re: new in Glen Ellyn.

       Esther Lahtaw of Wheaton, a refugee from Burma, works on a piece at Re: new in Glen Ellyn.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Rebecca Sandberg, left, with Gulnora Fozilova at Re: new in Glen Ellyn.

       Rebecca Sandberg, left, with Gulnora Fozilova at Re: new in Glen Ellyn.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Nicole Smulkstys of Glen Ellyn tries a hat on her daughter Kara, 3, as they shop at Re: new in Glen Ellyn. All the items in the shop are made by refugee women employed by Re: new who work right next to the store.

       Nicole Smulkstys of Glen Ellyn tries a hat on her daughter Kara, 3, as they shop at Re: new in Glen Ellyn. All the items in the shop are made by refugee women employed by Re: new who work right next to the store.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Moving Picture: Renewing Hope

 
 

Rebecca Sandberg knew spending five years in Kenya with her husband and three children would be a life-changing experience.

It was during her time in Africa that Sandberg began working with refugee women, designing items for them to sew.

"My time there was very informative and helped shape my thinking about the role refugees play," she says now.

When her family returned to the United States in 2009 and moved to Wheaton, Sandberg was determined to keep working with refugees.

Now 36, she's the founder and director of Re: new in Glen Ellyn, a company that employs refugees to sew a variety of products, including messenger bags, which is a large cloth bag worn over the shoulder.

"Hearing their stories changed everything for me," Sandberg says. "And I believe coming together as a community and helping all women find peace is especially important."

When Sandberg first opened the shop, she had 330 square feet of space, a couple sewing machines and one student -- a refugee from Somalia -- who became her first employee. Today the shop, which is at 250 Pennsylvania Ave., has 22 refugees working part-time, 45 volunteers and eight staff members.

Sandberg and the rest of her staff all volunteer their time, putting in thousands of hours a year to help, assist and learn from the women she calls "strong and courageous."

More than 54,00 refugees live in the Chicago suburbs, she says, and many have a tough time -- particularly women who speak little English.

"One of the main issues for refugees is their need for employment," Sandberg says, including some who serve as breadwinners for their families or who pool their relatively meager incomes with other family members to make ends meet.

Many of the women who now work at Re: new had jobs before coming to work with Sandberg, but they often involved scrubbing pots or working in factories in Chicago. At Re: new, the women are paid by the piece, which allows for a more flexible working environment.

"These women are sewing right here in the U.S.A.," she says. "And they are making everything right next to the store in which the things are sold.

"Re: new has been an amazing journey," Sandberg says. "(We hope) to bridge the gap between women from around the world and women who are here in the suburbs."

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