by Susanna Mang, member, Refugee Women’s Textile Cooperative
Thanks to the tireless support and expertise of PACA, PIDC, and Mural Arts Philadelphia, a collective of Burmese and Bhutanese women skilled as textile artists have been empowered to launch their community’s first cooperative business. The Refugee Women’s Textile Cooperative (RWTC) is a small and focused cohort of approximately 10 women who operate out of Southeast by Southeast, a Mural Arts Philadelphia community wellness center serving refugee and immigrant families in Southeast Philadelphia and funded by the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability.
“I am very grateful for my sewing teacher. I have never done sewing. I am so interested in learning sewing. Very much looking forward to learning new skills everyday.”
— Peh Peh
Upon arrival in the United States, refugee women face innumerable challenges to employment including: language barriers, transportation, and child/elder care responsibilities. The RWTC taps into their desire to succeed and builds on crafting skills from their home country, sewing expertise honed by earlier classes with MADE studios, and their desire to succeed economically.
“Learning textiles is good for my future. Not only for me, but also for my family and friends.”
— Hlawn Sung
Women in the program share a sense of empowerment and camaraderie with others in the group. Len Rem, a Chin community participant shares her experience: “through this program I got to learn sewing which helped me earn some money to support my family. Joining this group gives me hope that there is something I can do to earn a living while taking care of my children at home. I am excited and eager to learn more.” Karen artist Dah Dah, is “very happy to earn money with my own effort. Spending time with others as I sew also makes me happy.”
PACA’s expertise has been invaluable in teaching the fundamentals of collective organizing including: leadership structure, small business development, cross-cultural communication, and financial systems. The 20 Book Clubs meeting structure afforded women the technical assistance needed to develop a flexible business plan that works for them and overcome cultural, financial, and communication barriers together. According to Khin Aye, “it would be impossible for me to start a business on my own. However, as a group, we have the chance to start a business together. I am so happy and excited to finally have the opportunity.”
“This is a good experience. As a refugee, learning a textile program is a good opportunity for us. I am very grateful for our teacher Nancy who is very patient and kind to our women’s group. Through learning textiles, I get a chance to join with a business in which I could be some help for women in the refugee community. These women are willing to support their families in any way possible. I am very proud to be part of Burmese refugee textile group.”
— Susanna Mang
The co-op members believe that even though they are from different nations, they can help each other to succeed through this cooperative business. Their love for sewing and desire to succeed as new Americans bonds them together in this endeavor.