Working with Refugees, A Little Something


Part of the mission of The Lady Party is to shine a bright light on women who are making a positive difference in the world. Today we're speaking with Sharon McCreary, Board Chair and a Founding Member of A Little Something. This Denver based organization helps refugee women create and sell handicrafts to allow them financial independence. Mentored and supported by dedicated friends, teachers, and advocates from the community, Participants meet monthly to learn new techniques, choose supplies, turn in finished work, review skills, and receive advice about quality control for their finished products.

There is a lot of misinformation about refugees. It's important that people understand what it takes for a refugee to come to this country and assimilate. It is a complicated and lengthy process. After this contentious, unfortunate election and the surrounding rhetoric, we feel it's important to combat fear and misinformation with truth. Meet Sharon and the creative, passionate women behind A Little Something.

I met you many years ago when I was first starting out with The Impatient Beader books and you were starting out with A Little Something. Can you speak to the organization, what it is, what it does, why it matters?

A Little Something is a nonprofit organization that works with refugee women who have been resettled in the Denver area. They make jewelry, weave, or knit. We give them the space (both physical and figurative) to gather, create, talk, and process what they’re going through. Present tense. The journey of a refugee and all that leads up to it is long and harrowing. Many people think, “Well, they’re here, they’re safe, they’re good to go,” but that’s not true at all.

These women have gone through so much, and there’s still a lot more. The refugee resettlement system in the U.S. is really difficult, yet women are still expected to perform as wives, mothers, and homemakers, keeping the family going. Most have worked incredibly hard their entire lives, but have never been paid actual money for that. They often feel that they have nothing to offer in this new cultural context, but by giving them some breathing room, some community, and some money that they’ve earned, they come to understand that they have value beyond the household andthat there are other women there to offer support. That means a lot to traumatized women who are starting life over from nothing in an unfamiliar place where they don’t speak the language.

We meet with the women once a month for a crafting session. That includes a lesson on a particular design or technique, tagging their merchandise, getting caught up, and once per quarter,getting paid for items that have sold.

We go to craft shows and fair-trade sales around Denver throughout the year where we sell the jewelry, knitting, and weaving that the women have made. The crafters receive 75 percent of the selling price of their items. I love pay day! I never thought I could enjoy writing checks so much, but to see the pride on the women’s faces and get into conversations with them about how it feels to earn their own money here is truly uplifting.

Crafting/Creating is a universal language. It's a way for people to create connection, to defy destruction, to connect to something mysterious and magical. The women in Little Something come from all over the world. They've lived through things we can't begin to fathom. Yet, they find joy, wonder, connection, and a small source of income through the program. What drove you to start this initiative? What has surprised you along the way?

Back in 2007, the volunteer English acquisition program I manage had a Saturday morning class running at an apartment complex where a lot of refugees lived. It was a women-only class because this particular group of women—Somali Bantu—were encountering a lot of pushback from men from their culture in the classroom. The women were also facing huge challenges at home that made coming to school very difficult, so we started the on-site class for them.

Here’s the thing—if you get a group of women together week after week, it doesn’t take long before they feel comfortable enough to talk about what’s really going on in their lives. It was apparent that these otherwise fierce, determined women were frustrated by their husbands’ efforts to demean them and keep them from fully participating in their life in this country. The women told us that their husbands made them ask for money for everything, no matter how big or small—shoes for the kids, bus fare, things like that. One woman said that her husband made her ask him for money to buy maxi pads. That was it. That was the moment that we understood how much we take for granted when it comes to having our own money—and it’s also when we knew we wanted to figure out a way to help these women earn their own money.

We looked at a lot of different cottage industry ideas, but not much seemed to be a good fit. Anna La Torre, one of the cofounders of this enterprise, was trying to come up with a recycling oriented “green” craft. Some of the women had been basket weavers in Africa, but we didn’t have access to the kind of supplies they preferred to work with. Anna came up with the idea of recycling plastic supermarket bags into basket-weaving material, and although the women tried this out, the end results didn’t look like something we’d be able to sell.

After much thought, Anna came up with the idea of making jewelry—mostly because three of us already knew how to do it and it seemed like a good, portable craft that the women could do at home or with us. It was kind of funny on a personal level for me. I had a reputation as a “bead hoarder.” I think anyone who’s a crafter understands this behavior. I would buy lots of beads but then be reluctant to actually use them. I had a sort of bead-hoarding museum happening in the basement. Since we had absolutely no money to start our project with the refugee women, Anna, Melissa Nix (one of the Saturday English teachers), and I pooled our beads and supplies and used those in the first lessons.

Right from the beginning, this project just took on a life of its own. The refugee women loved having something new to do that was just for themselves. They were eager to keep learning how to make jewelry, and they couldn’t get enough. In the beginning, we met with the women every week immediately after their English class. Throughout the week, Anna made home visits to deliver supplies, give lessons, and pick up finished product—and she didn’t have a car! She was making her rounds, hauling supplies miles per day, by bicycle and bus.

As word got out about the project, we welcomed master weavers from Burma, and, as lots of knitters joined our group, we found out that knitting is popular just about everywhere in the world. Jewelry making remained our core activity, though, and everyone learned to do it, regardless of which craft they already knew. It was important to us that everyone involved was learning something together. The language barrier rarely turned out to be a problem. We all got really good at sharing ideas and tackling challenges with minimal language.

I think what surprised us most, especially in the beginning, were two things. First, that there was so much sustained enthusiasm from the refugee women. They enjoyed the process, the camaraderie, the crafting, and eventually, the pocket money they earned. We never really had to recruit for new members because the women spread the word to anyone they thought would enjoy being part of the group. An added benefit that nobody saw coming involved the women who were not literate in any language and had been really struggling to focus in class, hold a pencil, and just form letters. After weeks of learning the finer points of stringing beads and attaching findings, holding a pencil and controlling letter strokes wasn’t so difficult anymore. Spending more than a few minutes focusing on language and literacy tasks didn’t seem so arduous anymore. Making jewelry turned out to help them as language and literacy learners!

Another big surprise was how supportive people were of what we were doing. At the time we started A Little Something, I was an active part of the now-defunct About.com online jewelry-making forum. I’m a self-taught jewelry maker, which I learned from your book, “The Impatient Beader.” Whatever I couldn’t figure out from that book, I’d ask the online community. They were so supportive and helpful. I posted on the forum what our plan was for “A Little Something,” and then I left for vacation. At the same time, Tammy Powley, who was the administrator of that online forum, shared a picture of one of our refugee women holding your book. I know that you helped spread the word about what we were trying to do.

When I next went online several days later, I had a deluge of messages from people all over the U.S. (and some from outside the U.S.) saying, “I want to help. Where can I send my beads?” I remember sitting at the computer with tears of gratitude and joy just streaming down my face. It meant so much to know that people we’d never even met had so much faith in what we were trying to do. I think it really resonated with people that the refugee women weren’t looking for a handout; they wanted to earn their own money and feel empowered by that.

As empowering as earning a little money was for the women, we also started to get an interesting piece of feedback from them. Keep in mind that these women experienced and lived through things most of us will never even begin to imagine, including the traumas of war, fleeing one’s country, living in a refugee camp where there’s little law or order, and then starting over completely from zero while still trying to process past trauma. In conversations with the women, they started to mention that the process of working with colors, textures, designs, and just creating in general, was very soothing to them. They found it calming and meditative; it was therapeutic in an unexpected way. A couple of the women said that making jewelry helped them feel quiet inside. That’s huge when you’re talking about women who lived through truly horrific experiences.

I know this hasn't been easy, you have a full time job beyond A Little Something. What challenges have you faced? What are the big picture goals for the future?

I think it’s important to know that I don’t manage this project by myself. Frankly, our biggest challenge as an organization is that none of us who are involved have enough time to devote to this as we’d like. Anna has moved on, but Jaime Koehler-Blanchard has been with us almost from the very beginning, and like me, does some of the teaching and a lot of everything else. Olivia Kunevicius manages our event participation, Uta Greunke is our volunteer coordinator, Kandyce Pinckney is our knitting champion, and Susan Renick, also an A Little Something cofounder, is our board member at large. We all have demanding day jobs working with refugees (except Olivia, who has a demanding day job working as a real estate agent). We also have a great crew of volunteers, and let’s not forget the contributions of my husband, Leo Livecchi. From assembling Ikea furniture to loading and unloading my car to fixing stuff we break at the office, Leo is way more involved in this enterprise than he’s comfortable admitting.

Our other big challenge is, well, to be honest we have a lot of big challenges. We never have enough money. We’ve been exceptionally fortunate that so many people have donated supplies, so that isn’t a big expense for us, but we do rent a studio and office space that we can’t really afford. We have bills just like any other business but income is negligible, so we’re in a constant state of anxiety about money most of the time. We haven’t applied for grants because we’re concerned we don’t have the time to manage the reporting that goes along with grant money. That’s also why we don’t have an online store—nobody has time to run it. I’m doing what I can. I recently changed my work schedule so that I have Wednesdays off from my real job so I can spend them at the A Little Something office trying to get caught up on…everything.

Right now, our studio is inundated with donations of supplies that we’re trying to sort and organize. Although we’re deeply grateful that so many people have sent us materials to work with, we have received a lot of donations of random items we’ll never be able to use, as well as a lot of “bead soup” that takes forever to sort. Our resources and time are so limited that it feels like we’ll never get our space straightened out. Isn’t that just the reality of having a crafts studio, though? In our case it matters because until we free up some space, we can’t have more than three or four people in the studio at a time—space is that tight right now.

I play the lottery pretty regularly. My hope is that I’m going hit it big and win enough to make running A Little Something my full-time job, hire some staff, and buy a big, beautiful old house with a wrap-around porch that we can convert into the crafting love-hub of Denver. I picture a space that is pretty, bright, and always full of a community of refugee women supporting and teaching each other every day.

We hope to overhaul our whole business model in the near future. The way it works now, the women turn in their finished work, but they don’t get paid until those items sell. That can take months or even longer. We’d like to buy out all of the current inventory we have on hand, pay the women for that, and then, going forward, implement more of a wholesale model. In our new format, we would pay the women for their work as it is turned in, which will also give us an opportunity to do more individual coaching on design and quality control. Of course, to do that, we need enough cash on hand for the initial buyout and then enough money in our account to buy product as we go. We’re a long way from that. I’m really hoping for that lottery win.

Eventually, we’d like to expand the business so we can include more women in the group. We’d like to replicate this project across the country, host a social enterprise conference for other groups doing similar work so we can all share ideas and learn from each other. We’d like to start a coordinated, well designed line of products so our merchandise isn’t made up of hundreds of unique, one-off items. We’d like to have a retail presence and a robust online sales business. We’d also like to have a more formal art therapy component available within the work we’re doing. Seriously—there are not enough hours in the day!

There's a lot of fear and misinformation about refugees, particularly in this post-election climate. You have been a passionate supporter of shifting that dialog. You have real life, knee deep in the shit experience working with refugees. I think that gives you a unique perspective. Can you talk to us about what these women and their families have experienced? Can you give some perspective on what they have to offer to the equation? To be expected to achieve 100% self-sufficiency in three months in a new country starting with nothing, that's an almost impossible task. How do you help make that achievable?

As you know, I can really get into it on social media when people post memes or factually incorrect information about refugee resettlement. I’ve been working with refugees for over 20 years, and the biggest takeaway is that refugees are normal people who have had to fight to survive extraordinary circumstances. I am adamant about getting people to understand that refugees aren’t victims—they are survivors. They wouldn’t have made it this far, otherwise.

I spend my days with people who had good lives doing normal things until a war came, or they were suddenly the wrong ethnicity or religion or color or political affiliation. When I was still teaching, I came to dread doing the unit on family because so many students would share stories of losing brothers, sisters, parents, friends and children to the violence of war and upheaval. I met an 8-year-old boy who lost his right arm to a landmine. Another woman who was in A Little Something several years ago told me about why she finally left Baghdad. Her brother was kidnapped off the street and the family got threatening phone calls for two days. Those stopped when her brother’s severed head was thrown over the wall of the family’s back patio. Stories like this aren’t the exception, either.

Many of the women we work with spent years—if not decades—in exile in countries where they were essentially warehoused in the limbo of the displaced. They couldn’t work and they weren’t allowed to travel outside of a very specific area. That is soul-crushing. Refugee camps are particularly difficult because they’re dirty, there are few resources, little food, nothing to do, and not much law and order. People go missing frequently and women are particularly vulnerable to rape since they’re the ones who make the often far trek for water.

I get so frustrated when I read or hear that refugees just want to come here and have a free ride and easy life. There’s nothing free or easy about it. Most people don’t know that refugees have to repay the full cost of their travel (which is not discounted), and they are expected to be self-sufficient within three or four months, regardless of health, mental health, language ability, previous education, or job skills. And yet, they do it. They work as restaurant dishwashers and housekeepers, Uber drivers, at the pallet factory, in the meat-packing plants, and sorting recycling. There are former surgeons delivering pizza and teachers cleaning rental cars. Refugees do what they need to do to survive and support themselves, but this population also goes on to start small businesses at a much higher rate than the native-born population in the U.S.

Many refugee women are reluctant to work at first because they’re afraid they won’t succeed or they think they don’t have any relevant skills. Others are overwhelmed by their lack of English. Some are hemmed in by post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet, they are strong and determined to find their way. They want to work, they just need a little something to give them a boost of confidence. All of the little somethings they create give them a little something for themselves financially, and sometimes, it’s just a little something that makes all the difference.

At A Little Something, the women earn money from items they created. They have the space and opportunity to decompress, to talk, to laugh, to share whatever it is that’s pushing up their anxiety level. They also have a relaxed environment where they can learn and practice English with a friendly audience while also learning a bit about business principles and financial literacy. It sounds kind of serious, but we really have a lot of fun.

I love the story of Haiffaa. Can you share that with our readers? I think it's so profound. We take so much for granted living here where we have access to so much. Women in this country have so much more freedom, it's hard to fathom living in a country where you are treated like a second class citizen.

Wow, Haiffaa. We’re coming up on the sixth anniversary of her death later this month, so I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately. Haiffaa was one of our first members. She attended the Saturday English class that launched A Little Something and decided right away to be a part of our group. Haiffaa immediately understood what we were trying to do and she loved the idea. She absolutely loved learning new things—she had a voracious appetite for that—and jewelry making was no exception. As soon as she would learn a new skill, she’d turn around and try to teach it to one of the other women. She would often bring refugee women to my office at Emily Griffith Technical College, where she also attended English classes, because she thought each of those women would benefit from being part of the program.

Haiffaa was tenacious, vivacious, social, curious, opinionated, and stubborn as hell. She told me that in Iraq, she had been an only child. She always lived a very comfortable life, but she felt like no one took her seriously because she was a woman. She was expected to be a good daughter, a dutiful wife, and to keep an impeccable home for her family, but not to think too much or pursue a career or even higher education. In her culture, women were largely in the background.

When Haiffaa came to the U.S., she was really scared of Americans. She thought we were all like the stereotypes she saw in American crime movies. She lost her home and her father in the war, and she didn’t have any say in the decision to flee. She carried a deep sense of loss and anger about that. Haiffaa told me that she had trouble sleeping, but she liked making jewelry when she couldn’t sleep. She said it brought her a sense of calm, and when she was creating late at night, her brain would quiet down and she felt a peace she hadn’t experienced in a long time.

When Haiffa’s first piece of jewelry was sold and she was paid her $8 share, she cried. She had never earned her own money before, and she couldn’t believe how powerful that experience was. She had done something with her own hands for her own reasons, and someone liked it enough to pay for it. She told me that she wanted as many women as possible to feel that rush, that joy, that empowering feeling of having earned something all on one’s own.

Haiffaa was our biggest cheerleader. She would talk about A Little Something to anyone who would listen. With me, she’d argue about the marketing, the financial management, the bead selection, the designs we preferred, and well, just about everything. We used to joke that we maybe empowered her a little too much.

Haiffaa eventually left A Little Something to go out on her own. She even had some friends put together a little trunk show at their gallery—and attendance was packed.

As you know, Haiffaa returned to Iraq in the fall of 2010 to get some closure. She died in a massive bomb blast. You can read about all of that and listen to the story NPR did, here: http://rememberinghaiffaa.blogspot.com/. I keep trying to hang up a picture of her at the A Little Something office, but every time I do, it falls down. I feel like Haiffaa is telling me I haven’t chosen the right spot yet.

What's next for A Little Something? Where can folks find you? How can they help?

Once we get the studio de-stashed and organized, we’ll start recruiting new members again. We really do hope to get enough money to buy out our current inventory and move to our new business model. I did buy lottery tickets today, by the way.

Folks can find us online at refugeecrafts.org and on Facebook at A Little Something (The Denver Refugee Women’s Craft Initiative). Locally, we sell our items at craft shows and nonprofit fairs throughout the metro area (there’s a calendar posted on our website). People can help by buying the products the women make. Our items are small and inexpensive—buy several! We also accept monetary donations—those are very useful in paying our rent so we can keep the studio doors open! There’s information on our website about how to donate. We’re a 501c(3) nonprofit, so donations are tax-deductible.

I would also recommend that for anyone who is interested in helping refugees in general, check with your state refugee coordinator to find out which resettlement agencies are working in your area. Trust me—they need help with refugee housing, jobs, first friends/cultural mentors, and a hundred other things

You know, I can’t believe A Little Something is going to mark its 10-year anniversary a year from now. We never set out to start a business, but I’m so grateful we’ve had the support we needed along the way to keep going. Here’s to the next ten years!

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for this story and for always being a champion of A Little Something and refugees! <3

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    1. Now more than ever we need to shine the light on the truth and on people who are making this world a brighter place!

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  2. So inspiring. I wish the women refugees in Colorado Springs had their own A Little Something. I wonder if somehow we could have a meet-up between Colorado Springs and Denver women. But I'm totally new to volunteering with refugees so I probably don't know anything about how difficult that would be.

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