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Refugees Craft New Lives For Themselves

Rick Green

November 13, 2009

Once a week at the Hartford Public Library, women from war-torn Burma, Somalia, Bosnia and Iraq meet to sew slippers and handbags, lace and traditional clothing.

The handcrafts are lovely, but these refugees who have seen their homes destroyed and relatives executed are stitching together much more: lives as new Americans in Hartford, Connecticut, USA.

Would you believe there are hundreds of Burmese clustered thankful and happy on grim South Marshall Street in Hartford, of all places? Or that Fatima from Bosnia and Fatuma from Somalia spent the summer selling handcrafts at a Hartford farmers market, sharing few words but a lifetime of similar experiences and an unexpected friendship?

The people who will transform the future of Connecticut are right here in front of us, if you look for them.

I met some of the remarkable women of the Immigrant and Refugee Artists Cooperative one day this week, as they sat and sewed and shared food. Organized in 2007 by the Institute for Community Research and the Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services, this bubbly little sewing circle is a reminder of the huge potential that America still represents in the world.

We could all stand to be reminded of this more often.

Fatima Vejzovic, part of the wave of Bosnian refugees who arrived in 2001, knitted a pair of gloves while we talked through an interpreter.

"I feel more comfortable when I'm doing this," Vejzovic tells me, her knitting needles quietly clicking. She lost a son and her home before arriving in Hartford.

Nearby, Fatuma Ahmed, in brilliant red head scarf, works on a handbag. The Somali entrepreneur of the group, Ahmed came to Connecticut after 15 years in a Kenyan refugee camp and has a streak of American inventiveness. Putting down her basket weaving for a moment, she pulls out an L.L. Bean catalog from her bag that she is using to find ideas for future projects. One of those Americana braided rugs is the perfect new project, she explains.

These days, the economic reality is that most of these women can't find work, which makes the crafts and the few dollars they generate selling them more significant.

Nilofer Haider, an energetic native of Pakistan who is their English teacher, tells something nearly as important. This sewing circle helps them feel more comfortable in this new land.

"They've lost their homes. They've lost their countries. They've lost their cultures," Haider said. "Being a refugee is not a choice, you know. It can happen to anybody. And women are the ones who are often isolated. That's why this is so important."

Catholic Charities brings in as many as nearly 300 refugees a year, finding them jobs and apartments and a foothold in a new life. Lately, a wave of more educated and affluent Iraqis have arrived to start over in America. Like generations of immigrants to America, they start at the bottom.

"The conditions [they come from] have a very common theme," Catholic Charities' resettlement director Judith Gough told me. "Militia or a rebel government have come in and either burned their village and taken over their land. They've seen family members raped and executed. The Burmese people traveled 10 days through the jungle.

"Language and ethnicity, none of that matters with these women. They have this unified camaraderie to keep their culture alive. They just sit and make their crafts together."

This Saturday at the Institute for Community Research, at 146 Wyllys St. in Hartford, members of the sewing circle will hold the first of a series of holiday craft fairs to sell what they make.

Stop by and take a look at Fatima's slippers or Fatuma's handbags. You might also learn something about who we are becoming.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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