Seattle refugees turn trash into tote bags, medical scrubs and dog toys

In a nondescript workshop in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood, wedged between a restaurant and a convenience store, surplus bed sheets are sewn into medical scrubs, used coffee bags are turned into burlap tote bags and decommissioned fire hoses are cut into storage baskets.

Refugee and immigrant women from countries like Afghanistan, Myanmar and Ethiopia are being trained to do the work, which Refugee Artisan Initiative executive director Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman calls “upcycling” – transforming waste into products of practical and artistic value, rather than keeping them. put them in warehouses and dump them in landfills.

“See that stack of towels?” Tung-Edelman asks, pointing a dozen sewing machines at a table full of colorful linen triangles. “Unsold fabric, remnant of a Tommy Bahama clothing line.”

The nonprofit that Tung-Edelman started in 2017 provides artisans with new skills, a special community and the means to earn a living from home, earning $20 an hour for piecework.

The women face various barriers to other employment, in part because some speak limited English. But every Thursday, they visit the RAI workshop to collect the materials and drop off the finished products. Some live in Lake City and others live in other neighborhoods inside and outside Seattle.

Nilofar Hessary’s earnings help her family pay rent and support loved ones in Afghanistan, where she lived with her husband and three children until mid-2021, just before the Taliban took over. power. Her 4 and 5 year old daughters play together while she sews.

“It’s a good program because we can… earn money and take care of our children,” said Hessary, 27, speaking the Dari translated by her husband, Ghulam Hessary, 37, who has worked for the United States in Afghanistan as a security officer, driver and logistics specialist.

“It keeps her busy,” so she doesn’t dwell on the dangers her loved ones face, Ghulam Hessary added.

Tung-Edelman, a Taiwanese immigrant and retired pharmacist, launched RAI from her car, driving from Everett to Auburn to connect with newcomers. She sees sewing as a “universal language,” reminiscent of the clothes her grandmother in Taiwan once sewed by hand.

The nonprofit found a home in Lake City when a friend connected Tung-Edelman with a Children’s Home Society of Washington business incubator program, which placed RAI in commercial space. vacant. The effort really took off with around 40 women showing up at a recruiting event.

“I realized there was definitely a need,” Tung-Edelman recalls.

Artisans were making fabric jewelry and homewares when COVID-19 hit in 2020, driving demand for masks. They pivoted, producing 80,000. When snow damaged their space last winter, RAI was ready to expand. With funding from King County, the organization purchased its current headquarters, a former carpentry business down the street, which opened there in February.

“This is an innovation lab,” where RAI staff members experiment with new ideas, said production manager Alpaja Rajbhandari. They tweak prototypes, then record video tutorials for crafters.

RAI accepts fabric donations by the pound and sells some products (coasters, tea towels, burlap bags) through an online store (no running). The organization, which created a for-profit arm last year to enter into small-batch manufacturing contracts reserved for women- and minority-owned businesses, also works directly with businesses and other organizations on specific projects.

For example, it makes the towels for Tommy Bahama to sell in stores, supplies scrubs to some Swedish health services, explores a partnership with Climate Pledge Arena to sew tote bags from concert banners, and uses pipe Forest Service firefighters make baskets and dog toys, and she wants to use foil coffee bags to create sleeping bags that convert into backpack/jacket hybrids.

RAI can get help from a state program to market pipe products and negotiates with the county’s solid waste division to fund aluminum-shell, fleece-lined sleeping bags for homeless people.

Most projects involve upcycling, although he may purchase materials for large orders.

RAI has about 20 artisans who can earn several hundred dollars each week and some artisans who have become staff members, as well as trainees. Eight Lake City women have just completed a free eight-week sewing course.

Training will be the challenge as RAI grows. Many women want to join, but their abilities vary. Some are beginners, and some have only used pedal or manual machines, rather than electric ones, Tung-Edelman said.

Rajbhandari uses a spreadsheet to match each craftsman to the appropriate job. Her reward is seeing women gain confidence, she said.

“They may be the ones earning a paycheck in the United States,” Tung-Edelman said, mentioning a craftsman who has saved enough to buy a car.

Baseerah Salim, a craftswoman who recently became a RAI staff member, learned to sew from her mother in Afghanistan. The job allows her to share that experience with others, she says. She bakes cookies for artisans, who bring their children to the workshop.

Which project was his favorite? Tough question, said Salim, 41.

“Everyone is a favorite.”

This coverage is partially underwritten by Microsoft Philanthropies. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all of its coverage.

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