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Seattle refugees turn junk into tote bags, medical scrubs and dog toys

Daniel Beekman, The Seattle Times on

Published in Fashion Daily News

SEATTLE — In a nondescript workshop in Seattle's Lake City neighborhood, squeezed between a restaurant and a convenience store, surplus bed sheets are sewn into medical scrubs, used coffee sacks are fashioned into burlap tote bags and decommissioned fire hoses are cut into storage baskets.

Refugee and immigrant women from countries like Afghanistan, Myanmar and Ethiopia are trained to do the work, which Refugee Artisan Initiative Executive Director Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman calls "upcycling" — transforming waste materials into products with practical and artistic value, rather than keeping them in warehouses and dumping them into landfills.

"You see that stack of napkins?" Tung-Edelman asks, pointing past a dozen sewing machines toward a table piled with colorful linen triangles. "Deadstock fabric, left over from a Tommy Bahama clothing line."

The nonprofit that Tung-Edelman started in 2017 provides the artisans with new skills, a special community and the means to earn a paycheck from home, earning $20 an hour for piece work.

The women face various barriers to other employment, partly because some speak limited English. But every Thursday, they visit the RAI workshop to pick up materials and drop off completed products. Some live in Lake City and some in other neighborhoods, within and outside Seattle.

Nilofar Hessary's income helps her family pay rent and support relatives back in Afghanistan, where she lived with her husband and three children until mid-2021, just before the Taliban seized power. Her 4- and 5-year-old girls play together while she sews.


"This is a good program because we can ... make some money and take care of our children," said Hessary, 27, speaking Dari translated by her husband, Ghulam Hessary, 37, who worked for the U.S. in Afghanistan as a security officer, driver and logistics specialist.

"It keeps her busy," so she doesn't dwell on the dangers her relatives are facing, Ghulam Hessary added.

Tung-Edelman, an immigrant from Taiwan and retired pharmacist, started RAI out of her car, driving from Everett to Auburn to connect with new arrivals. She views sewing as a "universal language," recalling the clothes her grandmother in Taiwan once stitched by hand.

The nonprofit found a home in Lake City when a friend connected Tung-Edelman with a Children's Home Society of Washington business incubator program, which slotted RAI into a vacant commercial space. The effort really took off with about 40 women showing up to a recruitment event.


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