According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are more than 65 million displaced people in the world, and 22 million are refugees. In the United States, the number of annual, resettled refugees is less than 25,000 (as of 2017).
To give that some context, a “refugee” is someone who has been applied for resettlement after facing hardship in his/her own country. Once accepted (less than one percent of refugees who apply for resettlement are approved), refugees are assigned a country of resettlement. Upon arrival, they must set up a new home, find work and adjust to a new culture, language and economy—each tasks that present a range of barriers. After governmental assistance runs out, where can refugees find work that pays a living wage? Where can refugees go to learn the language of their new country, if they’d like to do so? What are their options and how do they adjust?
And that’s where projects like Open Arms Studio comes in. Based in Austin, Texas, Open Arms Studio provides sewing training, leadership opportunities and living wage work to refugees interested in joining the textiles industry. As a project of the Multicultural Refugee Coalition, Open Arms got its start in 2009 when the nonprofit began offering community sewing trainings at their cultural center, but it quickly grew with the donation of an entire studio and industry-grade sewing machines in 2014. Now, Open Arms has a healthy client roster, from large companies like IKEA to small businesses like Texas brand Miranda Bennett Studio, with a focus on sustainability and up-cycling. The studio also employs six refugees and has plans to employ 12 refugees by the end of 2019.
A few months ago, I dropped into the Open Arms Studio headquarters in Texas to meet with Meg Erskine, Open Arms’ CEO and cofounder. We chatted about the nonprofit’s growth, what it takes to create sustainable social impact and how she approaches leadership.
Jane Claire Hervey: Let’s go back to Open Arms Studio’s formative moments. What were some of the decisions that led to its opening?
Meg Erskine: Open Arms was gifted to Multicultural Refugee Coalition in 2014 to expand our impact within the refugee community and provide a revenue model for our nonprofit. We had been offering community sewing trainings since we formed in 2009 and this was an incredible opportunity to offer fair wage work for mostly refugee women who enjoyed doing this kind of work in textile manufacturing. Because of this gift, we were able to refine our mission to creating livelihood opportunities for refugees in textile manufacturing, farming and language services.
Hervey: Now, you work with and train a number of women through sewing apprenticeships into leadership positions. Can you walk us through the model of Open Arms Studio and how this is different from most programs with similar missions?
Erskine: We are a unique model in that we provide private label textile manufacturing, working with a variety of partners sewing mostly home goods, clothing basics and accessories. Refugees enter our program through referrals from refugee resettlement agencies and word of mouth through the refugee community. They are first screened for basic sewing skills and can enter into our 10-week Industrial Sewing Training onsite at Open Arms Studio, which is taught by some of our refugee team members. This gives students a chance to work through a skills matrix and learn what is required to work full-time in the textile industry. Once this is completed they can enter into an on-the-job paid apprenticeship program for three months working alongside our team members with consistent regular feedback for continued improvement. If they successfully complete the apprenticeship program they can become a full-time member of our team. We offer fair wages, family-friendly work hours, a supportive work environment, paid on-the-job weekly ESL training and opportunities for upward mobility. We currently have six refugee team members (four from Burma and two from Afghanistan) and at least two are in leadership roles (Maria as training and apprenticeship lead and Thang as sewing manager).
Hervey: We’re living in a polarized moment, in which many refugees are being turned away from the US. What has this meant for Open Arms? What has this prompted your team to think through?
Erskine: It is a very unfortunate time for refugee resettlement. Not only is the number of refugees being resettled dwindling, but the resettlement and assistance programs that have had years to refine their work are being dismantled, meaning many will have to start from scratch when refugee arrivals to the US return to previous levels. At Open Arms Studio we usually work with refugees who have been in the US for at least a year so that they are settled enough to be ready for full-time employment. This particular situation doesn’t affect our work directly but does impact family members and friends that were hoping to come through the resettlement process and are now in limbo indefinitely.