Sewing New Possibilities- Courtesy of Parts & Labor Magazine- author Nia Stojnic

Seattle is a center for refugees in Washington state—Refugee Artisan Initiative helps women who have relocated here to build on, and market, their skills
Photos (from top): Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman, founder of Refugee Artisan Initiative, at her Lake City workshop space; a close up of finished pouches, one of RAI's many textile products—each piece gets a tag with the artisan's name and where they're from; colorful threads and materials to make bread bags. All photos by Nia Martin.

“We have a few women—never worked in the U.S.—they made their first paycheck in our program,” says Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman. In 2016, she founded Refugee Artisan Initiative (RAI) as a way to help refugee women get a leg up; helping them to become self-sufficient by channeling skills they already possessed—sewing and crafting. According to the organization, 34% of households headed by foreign-born women are at poverty level.

The current team of seven refugee women—from Burma (also Myanmar), China, Ethiopia, Morocco, and Vietnam—work both from their homes, where they may also be managing children and households, and at RAI’s community sewing space in Lake City. They upcycle donated scrap fabrics into beautiful and unusual jewelry and colorful, sturdy home goods, such as pouches, napkins, potholders, bread bags, and table runners, which are sold at local shops around Seattle. Next month, thanks to Tung-Edelman’s continuing hustle to find new collaborations, that will include Metropolitan Market grocery stores.

Washington state is home to a large number of refugees (an average of 2,750 arrive annually according to RAI), though as of 2019, the number of new refugees arriving has gone down due to federal administration policies. For pharmacist-turned-entrepreneur Tung-Edelman, the idea for RAI was sparked by a much-complimented fabric necklace she frequently wore and a friendship with a former University of Washington fashion certificate program instructor who worked with the now defunct Muses, an organization that, similarly, hired refugees to craft pieces and gain marketable expertise. Tung-Edelman wanted to provide an opportunity to refugee women with crafting know-how, like the ones who made her necklace, to earn fair wages while working from their homes, while also learning skills that could potentially lead to more entrepreneurship.

Tung-Edelman began to connect with Muses students in her quest. However, she soon realized making fabric jewelry and selling it online alone wasn’t enough for artisans to make a living. She reached out for partnerships, which led to some small-batch textile manufacturing for companies. That, in turn, evolved into what today is the bulk of RAI's work: making their own product line using upcycled fabrics. RAI has partnered with designer Eileen Fisher, which has the biggest garment recycling plant west of the Mississippi in Seattle, for many of their fabrics. Additional fabric comes from other companies and the community.

Wearing another fabric necklace, Tung-Edelman showed us the Lake City sewing space (slated to be redeveloped within the next two years). Unusually quiet for a Tuesday afternoon, the space is typically busy with artisans sewing and, between 12–2 p.m., receiving fabric donations. Coronavirus concerns have the women working more from home, which is a good option, but also a loss for those who enjoy the company and having access to heavier duty equipment needed for certain work. There are boxes piled high with the pieces that are being prepared to go out to Seattle’s four Metropolitan Market locations, but that too may be delayed because of the virus.

Tung-Edelman, who still works as a pharmacist two days a week and spends the rest of her time on RAI, knows what it’s like to adjust to a new culture. An immigrant herself, she moved with her family from Taiwan to Saudi Arabia and eventually to the U.S. as a teenager. The barriers refugees face, from language to personal transportation to affordable childcare, are often hard to surmount without help from organizations like RAI and Children’s Home Society of Washington and Refugee Women’s Alliance, both of whom RAI works with to find women who might be a good fit for the organization.

In addition to making goods, RAI has begun workshops about upcycling as well as the cultures represented at RAI, led by the artisans themselves. A recent one had Julie (who prefers not to include her last name) teaching Burmese embroidery and culture and detailing her experience coming to Seattle. They are also hoping to start holding “fix-it” events, where people can bring in items such as curtains or pants that need to be altered or repaired for the skilled artisans to work on.

For Tung-Edelman, one of RAI’s ultimate goals is to intertwine equity and the circular economy, which aims to eliminate waste, in the minds of Seattleites—something she talks about at schools. Instead of looking at and buying ready-made clothes, for example, it’s important to do what the artisans at RAI do: “We look at what we have available and that determines what we make.” By Niki Stojnic

Looking for RAI-made goods? Find them at these retail locations or shop collections here

UPDATE: Since we wrote this story, "Things have changed and evolved dramatically," says Tung-Edelman, and RAI has been contacted about making personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gowns, for local health care providers, facing shortages due to the influx of patients with COVID-19 in Washington state. Tung-Edelman has begun a GoFundMe towards that effort and within 24 hours was halfway to the $10,000 goal. Follow the organization's Instagram herefor updates as the situation and need continues to be in flux.

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