YMCA Program Helps Refugee Women in Winston-Salem Start Businesses, Support Their Families

As seen in the Winston-Salem Journal, click here for the full article and pictures.

Scissor snips filled the room at a Winston-Salem apartment complex as a group of refugee women put their creativity — and their new language skills — to the test.

From yoga mat bags to paper earrings, their crafts will be sold to help them support their families and their new lives in the U.S.

“These women all come from very different backgrounds from more or less genocide to escaping civil war,” ESL instructor Jillian Miller said. “A lot of them have spent the last 10-plus years in refugee camps and their kids have never known anything different.”

RISE (Refugee and Immigrant Society of Entrepreneurs), a YMCA-supported program, teaches refugee women English and job skills, giving them the tools to start their own businesses.

The women meet twice a week to practice their English, and every Friday morning they meet to learn how to crochet and make crafts they can sell at craft fairs.

The program includes refugee women from Burma, the Congo, Syria, Somalia and Sudan, some of whom moved to the U.S. as recently as last week.

“My husband’s job pays rent and food and nothing left,” Burmese refugee May Paw said. “I make money to help my children get what they need. Maybe a pretty dress. I want to make my children happy.”

Paw was one of the first participants of RISE when it started a year ago. She came to Miller with her handmade beads made out of paper. Miller showed her how to turn them into earrings and start her own earring business.

“They’re very proud of the things they sell and so excited to turn their skills into money to support their families,” said Miller, one of the founders of the RISE program. “It kind of exploded from three to four members to 30 in the past year.”

The women sell their crafts at fairs around the city, including at Knollwood Baptist Church, Muddy Creek Café and the Robinhood YMCA and get to keep all the money they make.

Over Easter, the women made crochet bunnies and sold $800 worth in one afternoon. They also make scarves using traditional Burmese looms and a variety of sewing projects.

“My favorite is sewing the owls,” said Burma refugee Beh Meh, who became an American citizen Thursday. “I make money for my family to buy clothes and food.”

As the women worked on their projects Friday, they referred to a whiteboard with key words and phrases in English, like “I’m cutting the fabric” and “yoga mat bags,” to expand their language skills.

Many had babies on their hips as they crocheted, while the older children played in another room, giving them a chance to socialize in an English-language environment.

“We wanted to help the women make money and gain entrepreneurial skills, while also learning English,” said Julie Tomberlin, the director of the YMCA’s Literacy Program. “This started as a way to build community and practice English, but they’ve become crocheting fiends and taken to it with a passion.”

Another facet of the program is a partnership with Southern Home and Kitchen in Thruway Shopping Center that allows the women to teach cooking classes featuring food from their countries.

Amil Abraham, a refugee from Syria, has taught two cooking classes, showing participants how to make traditional dishes, like falafel, rice, chicken, fattoush and tabouli, she said.

The classes cost about $40 a person, according to a staffer at Southern Home and Kitchen.

The refugees teaching the classes get to keep the money, which has been a godsend for Abraham, who has two teenagers in Winston-Salem and a son who recently escaped Syria on foot and found refuge in Turkey.

“I love to cook,” Abraham said. “I do it for my family.”