How a Refugee Nonprofit Pivoted to Respond to COVID-19
When these artisans couldn't work on handbags together, they started creating masks at home instead.
Fleeing from home due to war, persecution, or violence, refugee lives will never be the same. They leave behind everything they have achieved in their respective country and everyone they’ve ever known. At this very moment, the UN estimates there are 26.3 million refugees around the world. Of that steep number, less than 5% will permanently resettle in another country, leaving millions to reside in unstable living conditions in a foreign land. Of that 5%, roughly a thousand are resettled into the state of Illinois per year. It can be overwhelming to try to comprehend how many lives are in danger each day and are seeking assistance. How can we take care of the foreigner, as the Bible commands, when there are so many? How can we see that justice is done and help the oppressed (Isaiah 1:17) when they can’t be reached during a global pandemic?
The prospect of fulfilling such a command can be staggering, but as mother Theresa once said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed just one.” If you can’t reach every refugee, reach just one. The best place to start is looking at who is in front of you and that is exactly what the founders of Re:new Project did in 2009. In the village of Glen Ellyn, after seeing the need of refugee women craving community and needing employment, a group of local women banded together to start teaching their refugee neighbor what they knew how to do best: sew. Word began to spread quickly of this new endeavour within the refugee community and soon Re:new Project was born, becoming an official 501c3 nonprofit to continue meeting the ongoing needs of refugee women.
Re:new’s program now provides a safe space for refugee women to thrive through employment and community. Refugee women are welcomed to join free sewing and ESL classes with the opportunity to work for Re:new as an Artisan upon graduation. Hired Artisans work part-time in a creative environment producing hand-made, unique bags and accessories. Proceeds from the sales of the bags in our storefront and online go directly back into funding the program. A typical day at Re:new is filled with sewing students learning a new skill, Artisans stitching bags on their machines, ESL class around the meeting table, and potluck lunches hosting cuisines from around the world.
All of this came to a grinding halt when the shelter in place mandate was sent throughout Illinois in March of 2020. The store was closed, Artisans were sent home, and worry set in. Work from home was not an option and I, the Executive Director, began to feel the weight of Artisans not earning income for their families. Within days of the shutdown, we began to receive emails from supporters, volunteers, and donors that face masks were desperately needed. This was our opportunity to meet the needs of our Artisans and the community. The task seemed daunting, but when we commit to following Jesus, we commit to loving others well. What does that look like for me at Re:new during a global health crisis? It looks like doing everything I can to see the refugee community around me thrive. So we said a prayer and got to work!
After a few days of checking CDC compliance measures and prototyping masks, we had a mask pattern and renewed sense of hope. Within a week, the staff filmed a tutorial video, sent sewing machines to Artisans, engaged volunteers to cut fabric, and built mask making kits to be sewn from home. The next month flew by as we grew our Artisan team to 15 refugee women making cloth face masks from home. The hardworking team of women made 12,000 facemasks in less than 4 months; over 8,000 of those masks were donated to over 30 different locations around the country.
For those 4 months, everyday operations of Re:new changed, but the heartbeat stayed the same. Refugee women were employed. Community continued between volunteers and Artisans through delivering kits and exchanging prayers. Our community needs were met by providing needed protective equipment. Everyone was safe as they worked from home. 2020 was hard, but the dedication of the Artisans, the provision from the Lord, and the abundant amount of support from the community was one of the most uplifting experiences I have ever had. I am incredibly proud of the way Re:new Artisans, staff, board, and volunteers stepped up to the plate to be the hands and feet of Jesus for the past year, and am eager to see it continue.
Kristi Zboncak, a Wheaton native, was exposed to different crises around the world such as poverty, modern day slavery in the fashion industry, and the growing number of refugees during her 3 years serving as an international missionary. Upon returning to the states, Kristi earned her B.A. in Sociology with a minor in Human Rights from Biola University and an M.A. in Humanitarian and Disaster Relief Leadership from Wheaton College. She has served as the Executive Director for Re:new Project since January 2020.
The Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI) provides resources for topics such as refugee mental health, disaster and pandemic response, and Spiritual First Aid. Join us on Thursday, March 11, 2021 for a free online event covering how to assess and address five core emotional, spiritual, and practical needs that HDI has identified as critical in the wake of a disaster or time of crisis.