In Her Words: The Refugee Artisan Initiative

The In Her Words Series is meant to celebrate the fortitude and dedication shown by BIWOC and WOC entrepreneurs through a series of interviews.

The Refugee Artisan Initiative employs refugee women from Vietnam, Ethiopia, China, Myanmar and Morocco.

Founded by Executive Director Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman, Refugee Artisan Initiative helps to create economic opportunity for low-income refugee and immigrant women by empowering them with hand-crafting skills to start their own micro-businesses.

1. Please introduce your organization. What is the mission behind the Refugee Artisan Initiative? 

At Refugee Artisan Initiative, we create economic opportunity for low-income, recently-arrived refugee and immigrant women by providing sewing and hand-crafting training and helping them start their own micro-businesses. These opportunities have been especially critical for refugee/immigrant families where one or both parents have lost their work due to COVID-19. 

Our mission is: β€œWe transform the lives of refugee and immigrant women by helping them create sustainable businesses in sewing and handcrafting products.” Our vision is that every refugee and immigrant family has financial stability to create healthy and peaceful lives. 

RAI’s core values are as follows: 

  1. Help refugee and immigrant families out of poverty and toward financial stability with training and job opportunities.
  2. Make products that our local community needs– currently focusing all production on PPE (cloth masks, plastic face shields, and washable gowns) to stop the spread of COVID-19.
  3. Protect our planet by upcycling clean, leftover fabric such as unused cotton bedsheets,  donated by local production and distribution companies We have kept thousands of pounds of fabric out of the landfills this year alone by making it into necessary items.

2. Talk us through your journey in creating your organization. What have you learned? What keeps you motivated to continue doing the work? 

We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that grew out of the immigrant community, and it is a deep value of Refugee Artisan Initiative to work WITH the refugee/immigrant community, not FOR them. Our founder and Executive Director, Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman, is an immigrant from Taiwan whose personal experience with the barriers that immigrating families face led her to start this program in 2017.  There are currently twelve artisan women working in the RAI manufacturing line-up, earning an average income of $3,000 per month.

In Washington State, 34% of households headed by foreign-born women are living at or below poverty level (DSHS, 2015). While many refugee and immigrant women come to the US seeking safety and a better life, many face language, education, and cultural barriers that prevent them from assimilating and thereby progressing in an unfamiliar world. RAI recognized the need for these women to attain English language fluency, fundamental education and work experience, and financial stability to support their families and cost of living.

Due to the COVID crisis, many refugee/immigrant families have lost work, at higher rates than the general population. Since April, we have ramped up our production of cloth masks and other PPE to provide work for immigrant women and help our community battle the COVID-19 pandemic.  RAI has made over 80,000 masks and donated over 10,000 face masks and other protective gear to medical and frontline workers, first responders, senior citizens, marginalized communities, homeless populations, and fire victims across the country.

3. How can people help support underserved communities and purchase with intention? How can we support the Refugee Artisan Initiative?

Our online shop can be found at refugeesarts.org. Our main focuses right now include promoting our Handmade Holiday Gift Guide (see below), and our Friendship Through Fleece holiday gifting with impact program.  You can help our cause by volunteering, giving materials, or by making a donation that will pay for equipment and training. Keep up with RAI by subscribing to our newsletter, and following us on social media! Shop and learn more about us from our website, from Instagram, and from Facebook.  

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