High Hopes: Artisans4Hope sews new community seeds 

Past a smattering of dormant sewing machines and a pile of colorful fabric scraps, a single cloth purse handle lies in the middle of a table. Looking at the mess of zig-zagging lines that makes up the seam, it's obvious this handle was used in a practice demonstration. Hanging on the wall adjacent from the handle is a collection of completed cloth bags, seams perfectly straight.

But this bright, airy third-floor space in a building near Fifth and Idaho streets is no sweatshop. In fact, it's the opposite of a sweatshop. Run by an array of previously retired ladies, Artisans4Hope is a nonprofit organization that helps train refugees in sewing, knitting and English language skills. All of the money made from scarves or purses sold through the nonprofit goes back directly to the refugees.

"We want to specialize in elegant, vintage, unique raw materials, whether it's silk or yarn or whatever," said Artisans4Hope president Hildegarde Ayer. "That's part of the point of this organization--to create products using native ethnic skills combined with Western design that sell and produce income for refugees."

And for a relatively new, donation-based organization, Artisans4Hope made a sizeable chunk of money in its first year.

"Last year, in 2009, we made about $10,000--all of which went back to the refugees, except for what went to the tax guy," said vice president Joan Cloonan.

Cloonan--former vice president of environmental affairs for J.R. Simplot Company and a recent political candidate--and Ayer, a former nonprofit leader, credit the formation of Artisans4Hope to a series of fortuitous events. It all started after Cloonan, an avid knitter, linked up with Boise's chapter of the International Rescue Committee in 2008 to work with its informal knitting group.

"We got donated yarn, donated needles, donated everything," said Cloonan. "Most of them already knew how to knit, and those who didn't, we taught them how. We taught them new techniques, finishing techniques, quality type things. We then decided we need to sell this stuff. We started selling at a few markets here and there and home parties before Christmas."

After the group's knitted scarves began to take off, Cloonan realized she needed to set up a more solid legal framework for the group.

"IRC couldn't handle the sales part of this," explained Cloonan. "They're not equipped to do that. So, I personally was handling the sales ... I was looking for a legal structure to work under."

Coincidentally, Ayer and a group of her book-club pals were also considering forming a nonprofit group that would help teach refugees how to work with textiles and give them the opportunity to become self-sufficient income earners. After watching the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, the group solidified their decision to form Artisans4Hope. Realizing the similarities between Ayer's and Cloonan's goals, Keziah Sullivan, community outreach specialist at the IRC, brought the two together. In January, thanks to a space and utilities donation from Steve West at Centra Consulting, they moved into their new downtown location. Every Monday from 9 a.m.-noon, they hold a formal three-hour sewing lesson, and every Wednesday from 9 a.m.-2 p.m., they host informal workshop hours. Soon, they will also begin hosting smaller knitting circles.

In one of the space's large storage rooms, giant reusable grocery bags overflow with hundreds of colorful knitted scarves and hats. In the next room, shelves are lined with stacks of various fabric scraps. Because of donations received from fabric and yarn stores around the Treasure Valley, as well as individual donations, Artisans4Hope is now able to provide refugees with the skills and materials they need to be successful. In addition to learning craft skills and producing much needed income, these refugees are also able to practice their English and make new friends.

"We start our classes in a circle and talk about family, talk about terms that they need to understand in order to understand the lesson," said Cloonan. "Then we get into a lot of discussions, cross-cultural things, as well. We talked about slang at the last meeting. Somehow the word 'bummer' came up."

For the refugees involved with Artisans-4Hope, the weekly classes help strengthen their communication skills and build the confidence that they need to thrive in their new community.

"In one class, a woman broke a sewing machine needle and she was distraught," said Ayer. "I said, 'This is not a crying thing, it's a 'bummer.' And she looked at me and she started to laugh, and she said, 'Yes, bummer!'"

For Bahija Sayed Quasim, an Afghan refugee who came to Boise in late 2005 with professional sewing skills, Artisans4Hope provides an opportunity for her to make connections and improve her English. Sayed Quasim already does custom sewing for Design West Interiors, and she eventually hopes to open her own business.

"The sewing group, they are so friendly and they teach us everything," said Sayed Quasim. "If we have any questions, they answer all the questions and also if we have any problems. They have the machine, everything, and they give the fabric to sew. They help a lot with refugees."

Dieudonne Boussoukou, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo and the group's only male, also knew how to sew before joining Artisans4Hope. But after attending a few lessons, he's excited to put his new skills to use.

"I think I'd like to make some new designs, some designs from my home country," said Boussoukou. "Maybe it will be good for Americans to see."

While Ayer and Cloonan are currently wrapped up in the day-to-day aspects of the nonprofit--and piecing together their First Thursday grand opening bash--they have high hopes for the future.

"We hope to teach these refugees the techniques and get them to the point where, eventually, we'd like to see them take over the business," said Cloonan.

Grand opening on Thursday, March 4, 4:30-8:30 p.m., FREE, 413 W. Idaho St., Suite 301, 208-345-6716, artisans4hope.org.

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