Every Thursday morning, a growing group of refugee women gather in a sunlit room in the concerned Ecumential Ministry building at Lafayette and Parkdale Avenues to share their time and talents in Stitch Buffalo’s Refugee Women’s Workshop. Co-founders Dawne Hoeg and Shelby Deck had a hunch that the women arriving in Buffalo recently had skills that could bring them together. Hoeg, a textile studio artist and teacher and Deck, a community activist, wanted to build a bridge to Buffalo’s new residents by inviting them to come and participate in embroidery, beading and weaving projects. The women hail from Bhutan, Burma, Congo and Thailand, cultures where there are longstanding handwork traditions.
They started the program in March 2014 with the goal to gather, to create and to socialize. Currently approximately forty women come together weekly to create lovely prayer pouches, beaded cuffs, Buffalove pins, ornamental hanging birds and arpillera or stitch stories. When the items are sold in local venues including Urban Roots, Shakti Yoga, Healing Waters and Body Glyphx Yoga, the makers receive 70% of the proceeds. For some of the women, this is the first time they have ever earned money in their lives.
Many of the women do not share a language, but they teach each other through watching and demonstrating. Without the program, many say that they would be staying at home, missing the opportunities to connect with others, develop language skills, and share information about issues common to immigrants. Word of the program is passed between neighbors and family members who often travel by foot to the westside community center.
At the same time that the women are learning from each other in the program, there is another bridge to build, a learning opportunity ripe to be developed right at our back door. The next goal for the program is for the refugee women to visit local classes in art education, foreign language, fashion, textile design, entrepreneurship, business and social work. Students could learn about traditional handwork methods, the native cultures of the refugees as well as business practices including how to create and market a product.
To achieve this end, Hoeg and Deck are looking for community partners, knowing that both the Stitch Buffalo group and the classrooms would be enriched by the partnership. This step would allow the refugee women to continue to integrate into the culture of their new home. Imagine an exchange between the refugee women and students where the world in its diversity and richness is brought into the classroom and everyone benefits.
Stitch Buffalo participated in the Ann Frank project last month at Buffalo State College and they will be present at upcoming holiday fairs. Look for them to greet our new neighbors and notice the unique and intricate handcrafted items which would make great holiday gifts.
Judith Frizlen is the founder, executive director, and parent-toddler program teacher at the Rose Garden Early Childhood Center (www.therosegarden.us). Author of Words for Parents in Small Doses, available at Talking Leaves book store on Elmwood Avenue. She and her husband, Karl, are Buffalo boosters who love to kayak and bicycle in the summer and cross country ski in the winter. They also support local arts and education. They live in the Elmwood Village and have two adult children who have chosen to call Buffalo home.