Northwest Asian Weekly: Making masks – refugees create hope for others and themselves

Northwest Asian Weekly: Making masks – refugees create hope for others and themselves

April 2, 2020

By Mahlon Meyer

Isabella Lee, sewing project coordinator, works on mask designs (Photo courtesy of Refugee Artisan Initiative)

It was the only thing in her life that did not represent defeat.

Si-Tu Xiaolin, 62, a refugee from southern China who lost nearly everything before coming to the United States and was still suffering loneliness and uncertainty about even food and shelter, found delight in an unexpected place. Hired by Refugee Artisan Initiative (RAI), a local nonprofit, to make fashionable clothing and jewelry, she was one day asked to make something special.

“It was a scarf to keep you warm,” she said. “But it had lights, it actually had light bulbs woven into the fabric, so when you put it on, it was not only warm, but really bright.”

“It was something special,” she said.

Now she is embarking on a new adventure.

RAI, which employs a dozen refugees like Si-Tu, some with even more desperate stories, has refashioned itself to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Founder Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman wearing a mask and showing one of thousands of cards her group is also sending to frontline workers (Photo courtesy of Refugee Artisan Initiative)

Its founder, Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman, a frontline health care worker, has taken steps to make sure the refugees can now produce one of the most needed items on earth now: masks. Last month, Tung-Edelman started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the effort.

It was a first for her, but Tung-Edelman has had many firsts before. She founded several other nonprofits in the Seattle area, including the local chapter of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, the oldest Chinese American civil rights organization in the country.

Alerting her contacts, Tung-Edelman as of press time has raised $15,000, enough to pay the women working for her and buy material for 3,000 masks.

Now, instead of turning out butterfly necklaces or heart-shaped jewelry or even scarves with light bulbs in them, they are hunkered down over sewing machines churning out masks. As of press time, they had already turned out over 1,000 masks.

“We will keep the campaign going as we also need to make face shields and other gear,” she said.

While local hospitals, launching similar projects, have had to turn volunteers away for lack of material, Tung-Edelman has scrounged together supplies, rolls of cotton drapery, and other unwanted fabric and turned it to good use.

When she goes to work—she works in the anticoagulation clinic of her hospital where most of her patients are elderly—she not only wears one of her organization’s masks, she also hands them out to others.

For Si-Tu, turning to mask making is again the one bright spot in a world of uncertainty and misery.

“I’m making entire masks,” she said proudly.

Isabella Lee, sewing project coordinator, works on mask designs (Photo courtesy of Refugee Artisan Initiative)

Making such a tangible contribution at this time can provide a sense of agency and empowerment besides helping health care workers, said one social worker that works with refugees.

“Now with the change from making scarves to face masks, even though it might not be so artistic or creative. However, the refugee workers might feel empowered and honored to be able to participate in such a meaningful cause,” said Chung-Hsu Hsu, a therapist at Asian Counseling and Referral Services.

“I feel they are making very tangible, valuable contributions to help save the lives of medical providers AND the patients,” she said.

Hsu also said that since face masks are in such demand, the project has the potential to provide them with even more income than their work making scarves and other fashionable items.

Si-Tu needs it. She now travels by bus three or four days a week at most to care for elderly clients, cooking and cleaning, shopping, and doing housework. When she rides the bus, she’s scared of contracting the virus.

At the same time, she does not know when her company will shut down and she will lose the meager income she gets which is just barely enough to pay for rent in a tiny low-income apartment in the International District and food. She has no other distractions, no other joys except taking the occasional walk in the park, and making products for RAI. All her children live far away.

“Work is always hard,” she said.

Tung-Edelman designed the program so that refugees can make extra income—she pays them minimum wage —on top of whatever other job they have. All the fashion design, and now mask making, can be done at home or at another job that requires in-home service.

That works well for Si-Tu in her job in elder care. It also works well for other refugees who lack the language skills to survive in other jobs or who are frozen in place because of disease or other trauma. One refugee spent decades in a refugee camp in Burma, where she contracted polio, and now does her work for RAI seated most of the day.

RAI is made up exclusively of women refugees. But that is not only a reflection of Tung-Edelman’s design.

Over three quarters of the world’s refugees are women and children, according to RAI. And while the numbers of refugees worldwide has been exploding, the amount that the United States has been accepting is shrinking drastically.

For those that have arrived here safely, safety is no longer certain. It never has been, with a struggle just for food and shelter. But now it has gotten worse.

For Si-Tu, the pandemic has caused an upsurge in her feelings and memories of her desperation in China and Hong Kong.

This is common for refugees, said Hsu.

“Their traumatic memories can get triggered by the current outbreak when these refugees relive or re-experience a situation that is similar to what they experienced in their earlier times of hardship. They can present emotional distress or physical reactions— worry, fear, anxiety, and confusion,” she said.

Si-Tu wanders in misery every day, reliving the past and worrying about the present.

“I feel the time when I was the most unhappy was when I was in Hong Kong, that was a time that I felt that the misery of my life was the worst. I didn’t know what to do or what would help, but then I passed out of it, my family helped me immigrate to the United States,” she said.

“But now I start to feel it again, now I’m worrying again about how I will support myself, and the work that we do outside our homes threatens our safety, our lives, if we get infected. Nothing can be safe in our life,” she said.

“It is very frightening and worrying,” she said.

In the meantime, she is waiting for RAI to ship her more supplies. Tung-Edelman recently expanded the scope of their efforts to include making plastic shields, protective gowns, and other gear. She also found a volunteer Uber driver to transport it to the women. And a matching grant from Seattle Northeast Rotary Club has helped them exceed their original goals.

For Si-Tu, that means safer work—and work that can save other lives as well.

“I’m just waiting for more material to arrive,” she said.

To donate to RAI, go to:

Mahlon can be reached at