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Article updated: 1/18/2013 10:09 AM

Moving Picture: Glen Ellyn shop helps refugee women

By Bev Horne

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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