Nepalis work hard to keep their culture alive in Utah

Story and photo by KENDRA WILMARTH

Imagine you are in a store. Casually running your hands along various items, looking for something that grabs your attention. Wishing you could find apparent character in a product, something different from the same old mass-produced item you saw at your neighbor’s house on Tuesday. For Salt Lake County residents, stores are starting to fill their shelves with something a little more unique.

Artisans from all over the world are working hard right here in Salt Lake City to provide the local consumer with products such as gloves, necklaces, scarves, blankets and handbags.

Many of these artists are refugees who have come from countries around the globe, such as Somalia, Burma and Nepal. They left their homes due to the dangers of war and moved to refugee camps. Now they have found refuge here in Utah.

The Global Artisans program was created by Salt Lake County to assist these refugees in countless ways and to also help ease their transition to a new way of life. The program was founded in 2008 and is a division of the Pathways to Self Sufficiency project. Ze Min Xiao, refugee services liaison for Salt Lake County, said it was set up as a way to address the gap in the refugee community.

“There is a large population of refugees who are not being engaged,” Xiao said. “This program provides them with the opportunity to get together in a safe place, keep their traditions alive and earn supplemental income for their family and also at the same time gives them the opportunity to be encouraged and empowered to achieve more.”

One of the largest groups seeking refuge here in Utah are the Bhutanese from Nepal. After 18 years of being in camps these refugees have found freedom in Salt Lake City. Now, these individuals are provided the opportunity to capitalize on their own skills by taking part in the Global Artisans program.

Xiao said around 80 participants are enrolled in this program and more than half of them are Nepali refugees. They meet a couple times (sometimes more) per week to knit and sew.

When crafts are complete, artisans have the opportunity to sell their products to the Global Artisans program for an estimated $32,000 a year. However, program participants can also independently sell their own products if they wish to do so.

“It’s teaching them that they can take their culture and make some good of it,” said Linda Oda, director of Asian Affairs.

Oda calls Utah the “welcoming state” because of the state’s willingness to allow refugees to settle within its borders. According to the State of Utah Refugee Services Office an estimated 1,000 refugees have resettled in Utah just in 2010 alone.

Several stores around Salt Lake County sell Global Artisan products, including Little America Boutique, Dancing Queen and Jolley’s Pharmacy. Soon BYU and the University of Utah’s bookstores will  carry their goods. Many of the artisans are also selling their products on Xiao says the program is in the process of finding new businesses to carry their handcrafted items. They hope to add another 10 stores to the list by the end of 2010.

Refugees meet in the Pioneer Craft House in South Salt Lake, where they are given the proper instruments to fashion various crafts. This equipment is financed through a grant given to the program from American Express.

“This generous grant allows us to purchase supplies, equipment, hire a part-time coordinator and also for marketing purposes,” Xiao said.

Heidi Ferguson is the project coordinator of Global Artisans. Ferguson meets regularly with the program participants. She said most of the individuals in the program already possess the talent and ability to knit and sew and that her job is to help train refugees in the basics of business and teach them new ways to improve their craft.

“All of these refugees are very talented and willing to work hard,” Ferguson said. “They feel comfortable here in Utah, and are glad they can add a little more to the community that has given them a safe place to live.”

Creating opportunities for artisans


Those looking for unique Asian or African handwork and artisanship in Utah need not look much farther. These homemade treasures and more are now available for sale through a nonprofit organization for artisan refugees recently organized in Salt Lake City, Pathways to Self-Sufficiency.

Photo courtesy of Wanda Gayle

At the launching of the Global Artisans project of this organization on March 30, 2010, at the Salt Lake City Main Library, tables were lined up in a conference room displaying true cultural riches. Handcrafted jewelry, knitted clothing for young and old, homemade cards and other objects were portrayed and sold by artisans. Not only are these crafts practical, but they also show the potential of self-sufficiency of refugees.

As women and men craft these gifts for sale they are actively pursuing the chance to provide for themselves. At the same time they learn vital business skills. The artisans from many different countries presented and sold their work to attendees. Although not all of them spoke English fluently, they were all eager to use the language skills they did have to sell their merchandise. Some of them even worked on their various projects at the event, creating traditional woven baskets from Africa and knitted baby socks. As refugees, they can put their skills to work and offer local shoppers diverse and unique selections.

According to the Pathways’ Web site, a refugee is “any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality, and who is unable to return to, and is unable to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Photo by Emily Rodriguez-Vargas

The best part about this nonprofit program is that the artisans are able to make some profit without extensive business education and marketing skills. Pathways and its volunteers support the artisans in the promotion of merchandise. In a step-by-step process the artisans learn the craft, like sewing or knitting, with supervised assistance from volunteers, then they prepare it for sale on the Global Artisans‘s online store.

Once a week, men and women who want to make an extra income meet for a few hours of training. At the Pioneer Craft House they receive supervision by experts in the respective fields, and together they learn, talk and laugh. Many times the artisans bring in knitting work they’ve completed at home for a last check, or they ask questions about how to improve their craft.

The artisans have a supervisor to help improve their sewing and knitting. Photo by Emily Rodriguez-Vargas

This program also offers free entrepreneurial training at Salt Lake City Community College by a group of volunteers. The Global Artisans project can only accept a limited number of people at one time. Through these business courses, training by specialists and on-the-job help, the artisans are placed in the best position to know how a business works for the future.

Missy Larsen, a volunteer coordinator for Pathways, said the project helps to close the gap between other organizations and services. While there are various groups to support refugees, this specific opportunity not only helps them immediately, but also gives them long-lasting business knowledge and skills they can apply to supporting themselves later on.

Larsen said she first got involved in helping refugees when she supervised a service project for youth. But it turned into something she couldn’t walk away from.

Photo courtesy of Wanda Gayle

“There are so many needs a refugee family has, from finding a job to needing to drive to appointments,” Larsen said. This program directly helps them to succeed and make some money to live on.

Ze Min Xiao, refugee services liaison for Salt Lake County, is a volunteer and one of the driving forces behind Pathways. She advocates helping refugees in Salt Lake City to become self-reliant, which she said is a great step forward. With the support from American Express in providing a grant for the market goods, the artisans can take home their profit, with only 10 percent of the proceeds going to cover overhead costs.

“We volunteer,” Xiao said of those who make Global Artisans happen. “We don’t keep a penny.”

Xiao explained how getting a job and being able to successfully integrate into the community is especially challenging for refugees. Learning to live in a new country can create emotional stress and people often encounter financial difficulties if they cannot find work because of language barriers.

Participants are working on necklaces, pillow cases and jewelry. Photo by Emily Rodriguez-Vargas

Laxmi Timsina, 23, makes necklaces and bracelets. She’s also trying her hand at sewing artwork on pillowcases. She has been involved with Global Artisans since she arrived from a refugee camp in Nepal in 2009. She was practically raised in a refugee camp, she said, after her family left Bhutan because they were Hindu under a Moslem ruler. Although she already learned to speak English in the camps, she said it’s particularly difficult to find a job as a refugee. This is especially unsettling when working against a deadline.

“The government helps us for six months, but after that we are on our own,” she said. Although money is tight, she hopes that other family members can join her here in Utah soon.

Her friend Nirmala Kattel, 22, is also involved with making jewelry for Global Artisans. A Bhutanese herself, she said her family was forced to go against their religious beliefs when the King had Hindus persecuted. They then stayed in Nepalese refugee camps, where she spent most of her life. Kattel said it was a challenge to acclimate to life in Utah, especially in the first months. She lives with her husband and in-laws, and she is still getting used to the greasy and sweet American food.

“It takes time,” Xiao said. “Refugees have to learn English and learn how to operate in a new society.” That is where Global Artisans steps in to help out.  The services teach those seeking an extra source of income to work for it and benefit from the promotion of the program. They also learn to start a business, Xiao said. “It’s all about empowering others.”

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