By CYNTHIA SCHUSTER EAKIN
We have all been affected by COVID-19 this year. For Cleveland’s refugee community, the road has been especially rocky. Refugee Response has helped find solutions to meet their needs.
Last April, as many refugee breadwinners lost their jobs due to the pandemic, Refugee Response launched a program to empower Afghan craftswomen and generate income.
The Refugee Response helps resettled families to grow roots and become self-sufficient, contributing members of their new communities through programs that include youth mentoring and education, adult tutoring, young adult employment and the Ohio City Farm.
The pandemic led Refugee Response to partner with ButterPear, an online fair-trade company, to create a line of handmade face masks. “The sewing program grew out of our adult education program linking women in Cleveland with Afghan women hoping to study for and pass the citizenship test,” Sydney Kornegay, Refugee Response director of adult programming explained. “Ordinarily, the women would go to each other’s homes. When the pandemic hit, this could no longer happen. We helped some transition to online learning. But, a lot didn’t have the time or the technology. We were looking for other ways to engage them. Some had previous experience sewing. We thought we might be able to turn this into income.”
“A few women started sewing masks. There were 500 masks in the original order, which was for a local housing group. We sold 200 more with ButterPear. That gave us a platform to do other things like help them establish a bank account for the first time,” she said. A small grant enabled Refugee Response to give each of the sewers an updated sewing machine.
“We expanded during our annual benefit. They sewed canvas bags in which to deliver meals. Restaurant partners designed gourmet meals-to-go for last summer’s, ‘REAP the Benefit’ event. Proceeds helped to expand programming and fund construction of new offices on the campus of Urban Community School,” according to Kornegay.
“At Christmas time, we thought about what sort of products we could create. Each woman bought materials and did prototypes for scarves and aprons that they designed. We also started a fashion and photography program. This was a great way to tap into two different groups,” she noted. The Joor Collection, a line of beautiful hand-sewn gifts marketed through ButterPear was born. Joor means “create” in Pashto, an Afghan language spoken by many of the Refugee Response clients. To create marketing materials, clients from the youth employment program were asked to collaborate as models. The Refugee Response hired Daniella Bezil, a client who began modeling at the age of 16 in Uganda, to teach modeling classes. The models in training learned about poses, body language and confidence in front of a camera.
Kornegay said the craftswomen will be rolling out a new spring line of products. “This will be done in partnership with our farm team. So, these will be garden-focused products,” she noted.
Patrick Kearns, Refugee Response executive director, added that the Ohio City Farm experienced a good year during the pandemic. “We had to change our pickup policies because of COVID, but other than that, it has been full steam ahead. This has been our best year in production and sales ever. And, that is something considering that for many of the restaurants we supply, the sales dropped through the floor. We ramped up our farm sales. We also partnered with the May Dugan Center to supply its produce pickup. We used our farm production from last year to introduce a product line of dried spices. That all sold out,” he said.
“Most of the changes that we had to make during the pandemic were to our education program. Sessions normally take place in the client’s home. That was out of the door immediately,” Kearns noted. “We had to jump in and offer other support services. There was unemployment. There was food insecurity. A lot of our clients worked in restaurants. We had to find them new jobs. We offered housing assistance. Everything went online. That was not accessible to our clients, because they did not speak English. They could not stop in our office for help. We did three months of triage.”
“Then, we pivoted to education. We made sure that our clients had wireless internet and at least one device in each home. We needed to get them online,” he explained. “We decided that this situation was not going to go away in a few weeks. We set up a model that we could use through next year. We hired on new staff from the communities that we serve who are fluent culturally and linguistically with our families. We set up a learning lab with safety measures in place for students who are struggling. We have a strong partnership with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, so we know when students are falling behind. Even when students get back into school, they have fallen behind precipitously in education. They are regressing. We will have to work with them for the next couple of years to make up for what has been lost.”
Kearns said that Refugee Response meets with students and their families weekly through their teen program at John Marshall High School. “Our students are completing their graduation requirements. Last year, we had five of our senior students graduate and they are now in college. Now in our second year, we have nine senior students and they have all been accepted into college. Even with a challenging environment, learning is still possible,” he added.
Refugee Response launches new programs through pandemic to empower its clients
By CYNTHIA SCHUSTER EAKIN