Out of a small room in the Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Austin, a company called Open Arms makes women’s clothing. It was started about three years ago, with idea of paying refugee women a living wage. More than 4,000 refugees have resettled in Austin since 2001 with many coming from Vietnam, Burma and Iraq with the newest group, which is expected at the beginning of next year from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The challenges for new refugees are big, and one of the biggest is finding a job that pays enough for them to live on. Open Arms is trying to change that. General manager Amanda Posson says they decided to hire all women because they tend to have a harder time finding sustainable employment.
"Refugee women are particularly vulnerable," said Posson. "They come with very low skills, very low literacy. Integration into the Austin community is sometimes difficult because of those low skills."
Right now, the company employs seven women, and all earn more than $11 per hour.
Jo Kathryn Quinn, the Executive Director of Caritas, a local non-profit that helps with refugee resettlement agrees that employment for refugee woman can be a challenge.
"Many of the women have come from cultures where women have not had any work demands placed on them outside the home, and so it’s an adjustment for the refugee," Quinn said.
The refugees working at Open Arms come from countries like Iraq, South Sudan and Bhutan. The company's production manager, Raya, is a refugee from Iraq. She says that the bond between the women transcends the different languages and cultures.
"Sometimes you don’t need words to talk or the language is not there, but the happiness in the eyes is enough to explain what’s happening at Open Arms," said Raya, who doesn’t want to use her last name because she still has family Iraq and is worried about their safety.
Open Arms is partnering with Blue Avocado, another women-lead Austin business to make ecofriendly home goods like reusable tote bags, napkins and make up bags. They’re launching a crowdfunding campaign to help get the project off the ground.
Blue Avocado founder and CEO Amy George says the she hopes the campaign will be the first step in bringing in enough revenue to increase Open Arms’ refugee production staff to 24 by the end of 2014.
"That’s really the goal of our long term partnership is to provide more jobs and more opportunities for hardworking women," George said.
Their campaign ends today, and you can view their campaign at www.moola-hoop.com.