I didn’t used to think about refugees.
I often heard about the Israelites being homeless growing up – Jacob’s hungry family driven to find food in in Egypt, generations of Hebrews enslaved in Egypt, Hebrews wandering in the wilderness, Israel being conquered and taken captive. Such intense longing for home. Such dependence on community, ingenuity, resilience, and faith. Such emotional, physical, spiritual, and relational struggle.
About 13 years ago I started paying attention to what World Relief was doing in my community in Wheaton, Illinois. I learned that refugees from all over the world, after extreme, thorough, lengthy vetting, were placed in our area by the United Nations. They had endured unspeakable horrors and lost everything, and now they were walking down my snowy sidewalks in robes and gowns trying to start all over again. World Relief helped them.
I soon heard about a new organization called Re:new. A few of my talented sewing friends were teaching resettled refugee women how to sew, using simple patterns and donated fabrics. I went to a Christmas sale and blew my budget on messenger bags, book bags, little dresses, and little flared pants for my girls. I got compliments on everything, every where I went and I said proudly, “It’s from Re:new! You need to go there!”
I started learning more about the histories of the women crafting the bags, table runners, and pencil cases I bought. I started learning about their future hopes. It broke and re-set my heart.
When we moved to Georgia a couple years ago, we fell in love with what I refer to as a cousin of Re:new, called Refuge Coffee Co.. We continue to be changed by the generous, humble hearts of the resettled refugees we meet.
Now I think about refugees everyday.
That includes the women and vision of Re:new! When I heard about their 100 Extraordinary Women campaign, and their goals for the next 5 years, I was eager to share it all with our Family Compassion Focus crew. Holly Setran, a founding board member of Re:new, gave me the full story. Please read on, learn all about it, and donate!
What is Re:new?
Re:new is a non-profit social enterprise that trains refugee women to sew, and then employs them to create artisan handbags and accessories from repurposed textiles.
Re:new was founded in 2009 by Rebecca Sandberg. We rented a tiny room in one of the Wheaton College properties, and started teaching mostly Somali women to sew. It was so crowded that we had to do our cutting on the floor in the hallway and often did not have enough seats for everyone. One day a woman came and there wasn’t a machine for her to sew on, but she asked, “Can I please just stay and drink some tea. I don’t want to go home and be lonely.”
We gradually moved to bigger and bigger spaces, and moved to our current storefront in downtown Glen Ellyn the Fall of 2015. We have recently re-worded our mission statement and it is stated:
Guided by our faith in Jesus Christ, Re:new creates a space for refugee women to thrive.
I, Holly Setran, have been with Re:new since the very beginning and am a founding board member and currently volunteer as the sewing manager. As sewing manager, I am responsible for managing our new student sewing class – both refugee women and volunteers, and have the very best role at Re:new – telling women that they have completed their training and we want to hire them. I have had women cry, tell me it is the best day of their life, hug me, etc. For some, it is the first job they have had here in the States, sometimes ever.
I also have 4 kids: Parker is 21 and a junior at Biola University, Anna Joy is 19 and a freshman at Wheaton College, Owen is a junior in high school, and Emily is in 8th grade. I am married to David, a professor of Christian Formation and Ministry at Wheaton College.
Another way Re:new has grown – we are now offering an English conversation class for our artisans and a weekly ESL class that is open to the community.
Can you remind us what a refugee is? Where do they come from? How do they end up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois?
A refugee is someone forced to flee their home due to war, violence, political unrest, religious or ethnic persecution, or natural disaster. Over the years our refugee women have come from Somalia, Nepal, Burma, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, North Korea, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. They are resettled here by the UN council for refugees with World Relief, who has an office in Dupage county, as their stateside resettlement agency. They do not get to choose where they are resettled, but are assigned a city before they come.
Re:new isn’t just about job-training, skill-building, and community – it’s about relationships. How does Re:new foster and create relationships with its artisans?
The friendships women have can be powerful and transforming. Many women come to Re:new very lonely and alienated. At Re:new, they meet other women who have lost homes, family, lived through violence, are struggling to make a life here – we all know how powerful it can be to have someone walk alongside us who has a shared experience with us.
I am amazed at how quickly our artisans take a new hire under their wing – teaching her, loving on her. They throw each other birthday parties, baby showers, and are always trying to marry off any single women, whether artisan, volunteer, or staff. It is like a big family. We also have the opportunity to help women work through differences in culture and personality. We have daily lunches that are pot lucks, with volunteers, staff, and artisans eating together.
There is a lot of laughter that happens around that table, and it is a joy to see friendships blossom between refugees and suburban women, as well as friendships between artisans. Re:new is like the old fashioned quilting bee – it’s a bunch of women getting together and creating something beautiful, while chatting about their husbands, kids, families, sharing hopes, dreams, etc. It is one of my favorite places to be.
How have your artisans changed Re:new? How have they changed you?
Our refugee artisans have shaped what Re:new is today. They have input into what products we make, help design our products, and have great ideas for how we can do things better. Sometimes we change the structure to create new positions when we see that one of our artisans is excelling and deserves a promotion or new responsibilities.
As far as changing me – these women have had a profound impact on my life. Just a few things I have learned:
- to be grateful. I am amazed at how, in the face of so much loss, trauma, and sorrow they have experienced in their lives, the prevalent attitude is gratefulness at the new opportunities they and their children have in this country. They are not complainers. They are hard workers. They are resilient. Often I walk into Re:new feeling sorry for myself for some ridiculous first-world reason, and then I am humbled by these amazing women and their resiliency. My problems quickly pale in comparison to their stories and how they choose to look for the good in the face of loss.
- all women are basically the same –irregardless of culture, religion, socio-economic status. We all need other women, need community, and deeply and passionately love our families and want our children to thrive. Our common desires, hopes and dreams bond us together.
- From my Christian refugee friends, I’ve learned that Jesus is worthy. In the words of Helen Roseveare, who suffered greatly for the Kingdom and asked herself, and God, if it was worth it, and God told her she was asking the wrong question. What we should ask is, “Is Jesus Worthy?” For my refugee friends who had to flee because of their faith in Jesus, they would all say yes.
- One time, a woman told me story of how men stormed their church, lined up the parishoners, and made everyone watch as they killed all the young boys and even slit the throat of a 6 month old. I wept as she described the scene, and I said to her, “You have suffered so much for the sake of Jesus,” to which she replied, “but He suffered so much for us, how can we not also suffer for him?”
- And another friend, hunted down and on the run for sharing the Gospel, wept as she shared her fear for her family back in her home country, who continue to preach the Gospel in spite of certain persecution. Her father tells her, “I am ready to die. Do not worry. I have to keep preaching.” Wow – talk about convicting.
What are some of your favorite Re:new “success stories.”
There have been business successes – 3 women have gone on to start their own businesses. One a jewelry business, one a floral business, and one her own sewing business. I would have never imagined any of these women doing this when they first came to Re:new. One of these women was so quiet, withdrawn, and sad when she came to Re:new. She has gone on to return to school, win awards, and is running a successful business doing what she loves.
Another type of success is the joy and fulfillment I see in the lives of women who come to work at Re:new. God created us all for meaningful work, and I have seen the healing power that creating things of beauty brings. I’m not sure how it happens, but as women take bits of fabric (unwanted fabric* at that) and leather, and craft it into a thing of beauty, something happens. I think it is a reflection of the image of God in us all. God created everything and said, “it is good”. When we create, we are reflecting His image, and as such, experience the satisfaction He expressed when viewing His creation.
One of our women, Guylnora, used to work at another job besides Re:new. Her son made her quit her other job because he told her, “Mom, you are SO happy when you come home from work at Re:new, and so unhappy when you come home from your other job (a factory job). Just work at Re:new.”
*most of our fabric comes from design houses, designers, and furniture stores. We have 2 volunteers who go around picking up very nice unwanted fabric from designers that would otherwise end up in a landfill. So each bag is unique and is made from beautiful fabric that would end up in the dumpster. One time we got some fabric that had the tags on it and it said $200 a yard!
How do you see Re:new growing in the next 1-5 years?
We would love to grow our online presence and sales. The more we sell, the more our women can work, and the more women we can hire. We would also like to grow our monthly donor base. Monthly, regular donors will put us well on our way to sustainability and will free us up from having to spend so much time doing fundraising and focus more on our artisans.
We also have big dreams of one day being able to provide child care (a huge barrier to women being able to work at Re:new), scholarships for college for our artisans and/or their kids, trauma counseling, and more. In the short term, our goal is to hire 4 new artisans in the next year. That is what this 100 Extraordinary Women campaign is focused on – being able to hire 4 new women.
What is the 100 Extraordinary Women campaign?
100 Extraordinary Women is a for-profit organization that partners with non-profits to help them raise money. They found out about Re:new, and were so excited about what we were doing, that they approached us and offered to partner with us and waive their consulting fees! 100EW seeks to help women connect with causes in their community. Their goal is to recruit 100 women to give $1,000 each to further the mission of Re:new. This may sound like a lot, but they break it down into very easy giving levels. No one is going to miss $17.48 a month! Here are the different giving levels:
- $17.48 a month for 5 years. This is the cost of one specialty coffee beverage a week!
- $21.85 a month for 4 years
- $29.14 a month for 3 years
- $43.71 a month for 2 years
- $87.42 a month for 1 year
You can find out more and join the campaign by visiting www.100extraordinarywomen.com.
If you prefer to donate through your bank account vs. credit card, you can do so through our website at: www.renewproject.org. You can sign up for a one time gift or to be a monthly donor by joining “Friends of Re:new”. Money given through our website can be counted as part of our 100EW campaign, if $1,000 is given or pledged through Friends of Re:new over the next few years.
There is also a local foundation (they prefer to remain anonymous) that has expressed interest in matching a portion of the money raised through this campaign! We are still working out the details with them, but have high hopes that they will match a good portion of the funds we raise.
Also, we have 2 artisans who have asked to donate 2 hours a week of their pay to Re:new. They love Re:new and want to give back to help others. Each of their donations will amount to $1,000 in a little over a year. Humbling when you consider how little they have. Guylnara, when asked why she wanted to donate, said, “people helped me when I first came to this country and now I want to help others.”
How can we join in the good work you are doing? How could children or families participate?
- Book clubs, small groups, carpool groups, neighborhoods could etc pool their money together to join this 100EW campaign.
- My daughter and her friends organized a neighborhood garage sale and bake sale to raise money for Re:new. At the garage sale we had a video going about Re:new and had brochures. They solicited stuff for the garage sale from family friends and raised over $1,000.
- Another time kids asked people ponsor them as they ran around a track as many times as they could. There are lots of fun ways kids can raise money.
- We have several partner churches but would love to expand that to include even more. Most of our volunteers come from local churches, and we would like to grow that.
Other ways of giving:
- Share about us and promote us on your personal social media. Spread the word. (media handles below)
- Buy Re:new products and show them off
- Volunteer to help as a studio assistant – ironing, cutting, organizing fabric.
- Volunteer to be a store associate – fulfill your dreams of working retail!
- Tell your church about Re:new – we are always looking to partner with local churches
Where can we follow you on social media?
- Re:new: www.renewproject.org
- Re:new online store: www.renewproject.org
- Instagram: @renewproject
- Facebook: Re:new Project
- 100 Extraordinary Women: www.100extraordinarywomen.com (click “donate to causes” then click on Re:new)
What books and resources would you recommend for those of us wanting to learn how to create refuge in our communities?
- Welcoming the Stranger by Matthew Soerens has influenced me
- Woman to Woman by Joy Loewen is great resource for practical ways on how to befriend Muslim women and share our faith.
- Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis by Stephen Bauman, Matthew Soerens, and Dr. Issam Smeir (Aimee reviewed this helpful book here)
- The UN website on refugees: www.unrefugees.org
- World Relief gives good perspective: www.worldrelief.org
I love this so much! Thank you, Holly, for helping us learn more about the beauty and community happening at Re:new. I’m thrilled to know about it and be a part of it.
Friends, please consider a year-end gift to Re:new ($15k match!), or becoming one of the 100 Extraordinary Women, or shopping online for bags, wristlets, and accessories for your holiday gift-giving!
©Aimee Fritz & Family Compassion Focus, 2017.