A refugee is defined as anyone who not only migrates from their country or region of origin for fear of persecution, but also feels they will be unable to return to that area for fear of further persecution. Simply put, refugees seek asylum because of fear they will be detained, injured, or killed if they remain in their country of origin. Fortunately, the United States continues to welcome refugees on the run from civil unrest, warfare and religious persecution, to the tune of 166,000-plus in 2008. When they arrive, they often end up on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, ready to work, but subject to low wages, long hours and little upward mobility.
Regardless of their education level or family situation, most refugee women in America end up working long hours as housekeepers or dishwashers at local hotels or restaurants. At $7.50/hour, they typically end up trapped in an unbreakable cycle of poverty and dependency that condemns them and their children to a very grim future. Open Arms is committed to providing refugee women in America a living wage – the baseline hourly income necessary for food and shelter including housing and incidentals such as clothing and other basic needs – which typically runs $3-$7 above the federal minimum wage. Combining ESL and enrichment classes on an as-needed basis with family-friendly hours, this meaningful work and living wage are intended to set these women and their families on an upward path of integration and prosperity.
Open Arms is not a charity, but a “social enterprise”, a sustainable, for-profit company working to achieve a social purpose through the materials they use, the products they sell and the impact they have. As such, Open Arms measures its success against a triple bottom line that is economic (employ), ecologic (engage) and social (enjoy).
I hope you will read the amazing stories of the women who have benefited from this social enterprise and check out the great video about Open Arms. I highly recommend you shop their store, share their story, and support their important work.
- Miss A
Flora works at Open Arms in the pre-production and post-production stages for all of our products. She joyfully accepts new challenges and is eager to help in every area.
She is the widowed mother of 7 children, ranging in age from 5 to 18. They fled violent fighting in southern Sudan, with vivid memories of shootings and houses burning with families locked inside. She tries to keep in touch with the family she left behind, including her mother, sister and brother (who just recently died). Like many Sudanese, she and her family escaped to Egypt and applied for refugee status with the United Nations. In Flora’s words, waiting for the U.N. to accept an application is “very hard.” She and her family lived in Egypt for four years, working a series of difficult, low-paying jobs before being resettled in Austin, Texas.
At Open Arms, Tila is a part of the production team responsible for sewing. She is a conscientious, hard worker.
Memories of Bhutan, Tila’s homeland, are scarce, but she can recall the 17 years she and her family spent in a Nepal refugee camp. Life in the camp was congested and difficult with few freedoms. Never allowed to leave the camp, refugees stayed in their assigned sectors, working together in menial jobs and subsisting on a diet of rice and oil with limited access to medicine. She and her family left behind all their belongings and several family members including her mother and sister. She came to Austin in 2010.
Man Maya’s Story
Our youngest team member, Man Maya creates many of the hand-sewn flourishes on our products. Her quick smile and helpful attitude brighten the workspace for everyone.
Man Maya is also from Bhutan, but can only remember the refugee camp in Nepal that was her home for 17 years. Living in flimsy bamboo houses crowded closely together presented its share of difficulties, including a general climate of danger in the camp. As camp residents, she and her family had no rights or freedom of movement, at least until the state department approved their application. She lives in Austin with her parents but still worries about two brothers she had to leave behind in the camps.
Odile works in the production team at Open Arms, helping create the hand-sewn detail work. Her joy in her work is contagious and she is responsible for the spontaneous dancing and singing that often break out in the office!
Born and raised in the Congo, Odile fled oppression on foot, walking every day for a year to reach neighboring Gabon. Many unspeakable things happened to her and her family during their exodus from the Congo, and the 10 years in Gabon were also marred by an inhospitable attitude displayed by the local citizens. Her desperate desire to leave was finally fulfilled when her application to emigrate was approved, and she arrived in Austin with her three daughters in 2010. She is still haunted by the memory of three sons she had to leave in Gabon.
A very recent refugee from Iraq, Raya joins Open Arms as our Production Supervisor. Educated and trained as an engineer, she brings experience and confidence to our team.
Raya and her husband fled from Iraq in November, 2010, after realizing their safety was in jeopardy every time they left their home. While growing accustomed to the sounds of bombs, tanks and fighter jets, they could not adjust to the fear they felt from the daily stress of never knowing if they would return home alive. Daily activities, like going to work, to restaurants or shopping, became a dangerous gamble. The civil unrest in Iraq has resulted in many kidnappings and even assassinations, with bodies left on the street and in the garbage. Raya’s parents, and some siblings, still reside in Baghdad.
Mona joined the team as a production specialist in September 2012. Speaking only Arabic and little English, she has quickly grown to understand the fast pace of the office, with much help from Raya (who also speaks Arabic).
From the Sudan, she has endured much and has told the team at Open Arms very little. As she heals and connects with the team as a whole, we hope to more often see the smile she occasionally lets slip (usually due to something Odile has said)!
Christine recently joined Open Arms in December, 2012, as a production specialist. Her sweet personality, paired with previous sewing experience has helped her become part of the team very quickly!
Originally from Burundi, she spent 18 years in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Thankfully, the camp was a good one, with food and relative safety, although crowded and without any work opportunities and certainly not a home with electricity or running water. She and her husband met in the camp and came to the U.S. with four children and one on the way! She tells us she is happy to have found work at Open Arms. With five children, she is also happy to see them get a good education.