Program offers way for refugee women to learn skills, earn money

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Saturday, March 11, 2017

Program offers way for refugee women to learn skills, earn money

Mariam Mohamad Jamal paints a scarf inside a studio as part of a Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program on Feb. 28. At LOOM women from Iraq, Bhutan, Congo and Afghanistan gather together weekly to produce handmade products designed in collaboration with local Chicago designers. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Achta Khamis hangs a scarf to dry. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A sample of handmade jewelry the woman created that are sold on the website. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Bishnu Gurung, Dil Gurung and Iris Moriam create scarves at the studio. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Hlaiwah Hussein hangs a scarf up to dry. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

The women who gather at LOOM Chicago are from Afghanistan and Iraq, Syria and the Republic of Congo, Nepal, Bhutan and Sudan.

The women meet each week to work on handicrafts, to learn new skills, to make a little bit of money and to socialize with one another. They have one defining experience in common: All of them came to Chicago as refugees, some more than a decade ago, some last year.

The women who come to LOOM — a non-profit social enterprise started by Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement program — spent a Tuesday afternoon in February hand painting dye onto silk scarves.

“We wanted to do something a little lighter because spring is coming,” said Neta Levinson, who became the program manager in January.

Before the women arrived, Levinson and two volunteers washed the white scarves in a special detergent that helps the dye set. Then the artists laid the damp scarves flat on plastic-covered tables and applied the colors. Some daubed patterns of dots, others drew designs with their paintbrushes. The dye mixes with the water in the scarves and runs and bleeds, making the colors blend together.

As each scarf is finished, its creator pins a nametag on it and hangs it to dry. Later, all the scarves will be washed again and photographed — often modeled by their designers — to be posted for sale on the LOOM website, Proceeds from the sale of each scarf go to the woman who made it.

While the scarf project is simple enough that the women can pick it up with little instruction, most say their favorite crafts are yarn work, like knitting or crochet. But with the season changing — and after an unusually warm winter — LOOM needed to get away from cold-weather apparel.

Some of the women and volunteers are working on lighter-weight yarn pieces, and crocheted earrings are always popular, if only because the women can take them home to work on them and then bring back finished products.

Rahima Ali Hassan, 37, who arrived in Chicago 13 months earlier with three children, said she prefers crochet.

Ali Hassan is from Afghanistan originally, learned English when she was educated in Iran, and lived in Pakistan with her husband, who was killed eight years ago.

She works full-time as a home-care aide, and part-time hand-knotting rugs, as well as the work she does for LOOM.

“I like busy,” she said. “Not sitting still.”

She also likes Chicago, where she said things are much better than they were in Afghanistan.

“There are good schools, good parks, there is everything,” she said. “In Afghanistan, life is very difficult.”

Most of the women come to LOOM with knitting or crocheting skills they learned in their home countries, Levinson said, and if there is a technique that is new, the other women are willing to demonstrate.

“There is a language barrier,” she said. “But the work is very visual.”

Levinson, who was raised in Mexico and studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said she relates to the women who come to LOOM as an immigrant, if not a refugee.

“I was born in one country, grew up in another and now am here,” she said. “I’m not a refugee myself, but I am a foreigner.”

Most of the women are referred from Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement program, which assists refugees newly arrived in Chicago. Charities staff and volunteers meet families at the airport, find housing for them, help the adults find jobs and get the kids enrolled in school.

A refugee fron Nepal needed the help of Catholic Charities when she arrived in 2010. Three weeks after coming to Chicago with her husband and daughters, she delivered a fourth baby girl. Within months, she said, her husband became abusive to her and the baby, and she needed the help of her caseworker to separate from him.

Now she is a single mother raising three girls; her oldest daughter is married and living in Australia. She has back and leg pain following a fall she suffered while working at a dry cleaner two years ago and uses a cane to walk.

That hasn’t stopped her from making the trip to LOOM and its rooms on the third floor of a church office and school building each week. On the day the women are dyeing scarves, she takes time out to show Levinson a light-weight crocheted shawl she made, in the hope that the women can do something similar. The LOOM website also gives her credit for a particular design of infinity scarf.

Born in Bhutan, the woman lived in Nepal for nearly 20 years before receiving approval to come to the United States as a refugee. When she arrived, she spoke only Nepali, and could not read or write.

“When I was a child, I never went to school,” she said.

Some ESL classes in Chicago helped her learn the basics of spoken and written English, and her drive to communicate pushed her to be able to use knitting and crochet patterns.

The woman started coming to LOOM in 2012, when it got funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and took its current form and name. It grew out of a more informal women’s art group that Catholic Charities started in 2010, according to Jamie Lynn Ferguson, assistant director of communications for Catholic Charities.

In any given week, about eight women come to the workshop, Levinson said, but not always the same eight. Some can’t make it every time because of their work schedules, some need child care. Some bring their children on occasion.

Levinson said she prefers art that is useful as well as beautiful, and she laments the culture that has created a seemingly endless supply of cheaply mass-produced and easily replaced goods. The items LOOM produces are the antithesis if that, with each pillow, scarf or piece of jewelry an individual work of art.

But to keep the program working, she can’t focus only on the creative aspect.

“The struggle is to think of something people are going to want to buy,” she said. “If we make something and it doesn’t sell, we don’t make it again.”


  • refugees
  • catholic charities
  • loom
  • catholic campaign for human development

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