“You don’t come to the US as a refugee unless you’ve been through incredible trauma and devastation. The sewing classes are the fun part of their lives.”
That’s how Helen Sweitzer describes the Sewing Studio at RefugeeOne, the Chicago organization that helps refugees who are fleeing war, terror, violence, and persecution settle into their new lives.
Our discovery of the Sewing Studio was what ended up bringing Everand® to life. Learning we could commission refugee women to sew all our products and earn a living wage in the process gave us the missing piece we needed when thinking about starting this company.
We want to introduce you to the organization we love and rely on so much. So we talked to Helen, the Director of Resettlement, about the genesis of the Studio and the women in it.
Helen has been with RefugeeOne for 11 years, long enough to have seen prior, less successful incarnations of the sewing offerings. She explained that they tried volunteer-staffed classes that were inconsistent and a co-op model that floundered before hitting on what opened as the Sewing Studio in September 2017.
The Studio offers beginner and advanced courses taught by paid teachers, with both levels meeting six hours a week for 12 weeks; an English teacher joins them one hour a week. Upon graduating, the women receive a new sewing machine, and a studio manager now works to find jobs for the graduates—sewing everything from girls’ dresses to dog leashes to all EVERAND products.
Most refugees at the moment are coming from Burma and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the Studio has had students from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Burundi, Morocco, Colombia, Somalia, Pakistan, Jordan, Mexico, Egypt, and Ethiopia.
Classes give them an employable skill along with reduced isolation. Graduates who take on jobs still often return to use the cutting tables and do prep work in the Studio. There’s a growing sense of community, and it’s a real social lifeline for the women. Most of them have families, and their at-home responsibilities prevent them from getting other jobs. Having access to work that they can do at home, on their own time, is so important.
The majority of our products are sewn by Judith Cing, who came to Chicago from Burma. We adore working with her, and love the exquisite work she does. Helen sees the other side of the equation: how excited Judith is to pick up her checks. “I think giving her an income has really changed her life,” says Helen.
That income comes from your purchases. You’re changing Judith’s story, you’re changing our story, and we hope our products are changing yours.