Refugee women craft better future through Open Arms

After fleeing the South Asian country of Bhutan, Tila Baskota and her family lived in a Nepalese refugee camp for almost two decades. It’s been about three years since she left, but the memories of life at the camp will always follow her.

“It was very difficult there,” Baskota, 40, says. “We didn’t have enough food to eat or good shelter.” Access to a solid education wasn’t possible, and Baskota endured poor sanitation and hygiene conditions.

Baskota, her husband and three children were eventually accepted into the U.S., but she had to leave her parents behind and misses them terribly. She’s slowly building a foundation for a new life in Austin and each day tries to create new memories.

Every weekday morning, Baskota heads to Central Presbyterian Church on East Eighth Street. Inside the church building sits Open Arms, a small textile manufacturing company where Baskota works on the production team. Colorful T-shirts pile up on the workspace’s shelves, sewing machines buzz and chatter abounds. Women from all walks of life surround Baskota. Like her, they are also refugees and have become a family of sorts in this unexpected place in downtown Austin.

Open Arms employs seven refugee women who are mostly war survivors, from nations such as Sudan and Iraq, in an effort to create living wage jobs for a population that’s largely invisible. While the social enterprise provides opportunities for Austin’s refugee community, it also tackles textile waste issues by making all of the brand’s stylish clothes and accessories from repurposed T-shirts and other fabrics.

Open Arms launched in 2010 after co-founder and CEO Leslie Beasley embarked on a life-changing journey to Uganda. During a visit to a refugee camp, Beasley learned about the horrific experiences and abuse many of the women there had faced during a northern Uganda conflict that eventually captured the world’s attention with the Internet campaign Kony 2012.

Inspired by their strength and determination, Beasley returned to Austin motivated to learn about what happens to refugees once they arrive in the capital city. According to the Multicultural Refugee Coalition, Austin receives about 1,000 refugees annually from all over the world. Beasley volunteered with Refugee Services of Texas and helped register children in area schools.

“I discovered poverty, isolation and fear (among the refugees) because they are expecting a new start here,” Beasley says. “Then they get here and have a new kind of fear: Can I take care of my children? Can I adjust to a new way of living?”

Beasley gathered a group of friends who together launched Open Arms to address these issues in a creative way. “When (the founding team) started dreaming, we said, ‘Let’s do it differently.’”

As a social enterprise, they operate as a for-profit business but also divert garments from landfills. Open Arms receives T-shirts from printers or event companies that have misprinted, overrun or flawed T-shirts they can’t use. They also buy graphic prints from retailers that have end-of-bolt fabrics they need to discard.

The company works with a designer and pattern maker for its skirt, dress and accessory designs. Then Baskota and the rest of the Open Arms production team transforms the fabrics into recycled fashions that sell for $10 to $75.

Open Arms expects to recycle about 80,000 T-shirts this year. Workers repurpose leftover material as ties for their labels. Whatever they don’t use, they sell to local textile recyclers Josco Products, which then converts materials to multipurpose wiping rags.

Open Arms’ growing popularity has led to a successful crowdfunding campaign that raised $53,690 to launch a new line of reusable bags in partnership with local eco-lifestyle brand Blue Avocado. For Open Arms, this means expanding operations to include manufacturing clothing and accessories designed by other brands. Beasley credits the positive feedback from retailers and shoppers to conscious consumers.

“Customers are beginning to ask, ‘Where’s this made? Is it ethically produced?’ The conscious consumer thinks about the supply chain,” Beasley says.

Refugee Services of Texas recommends job candidates like Baskota for the Open Arms production team when there’s an opening. Beasley says they look for candidates who are the most vulnerable, which often means they don’t speak English or have an obvious skill set. They choose these women so they have a chance at earning enough to support their families.

While the city of Austin has set a living wage of $11 an hour for its employees, Open Arms pays employees $17 an hour (that’s with health insurance built in). “You can’t support a family on minimum wage,” Beasley says.

Back at the Open Arms workroom, it’s a cultural experience simply sharing the space with the seven women who represent different corners of the world, have varied faiths and speak several languages. “There’s a women helping women atmosphere that does break through language barriers,” Beasley says. Open Arms often brings in translators for meetings or trainings, but “I think women have a way of communicating that’s beyond words,” Beasley says. “With the production team, there’s a common shared experience, so when someone joins the team there’s a camaraderie that’s really special.”

Lunchtime at Open Arms quickly became an unexpected community-building experience, says co-founder Trina Barlow, who is also Open Arms’ director of marketing and communications. While the American staffers brought their cold sandwiches or individually packed lunches to the office during the company’s first week, the refugee women brought their hot foods to share with everyone, Barlow says.

“It became very clear that the shared meal was a natural extension for all cultures, from the Congo to Nepal,” Barlow says. “It was really beautiful.” American staffers have abandoned their solo, fast-eating, turkey-and-cheese-sandwich ways and joined in on the daily ritual. During the lunch hour, Open Arms also invites volunteers to lead enrichment classes like English as a second language.

From UT game day dresses to graphic-print headbands, Open Arms’ products can be found in 22 states and 23 retailers in Austin. Open Arms hopes to expand its brand and manufacture other brands to employ more women, Beasley says.

“We want to see lives impacted and watch this community change,” she says. “This population is invisible, and we want to see that no longer be the case. These war survivors should be integrated and a vibrant part of the community.”

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