By John Macapagal
Making it through a stringent and exhaustive refugee screening process is just one of the hurdles refugees have to face. They are confronted with many obstacles that keep them from having a smooth transition to a new country. Economic, cultural, and language barriers are just some of the impediments that make it hard for a lot of refugees in becoming fully integrated in their new communities. “I was very happy when I came to the US but after a few days I was disappointed. Things weren’t as I expected: the weather was so terrible; I still had to work longer hours; and the social culture was very different. But slowly I’m adapting to American life. And I think the US is little bit better than Uganda. But having lived in three countries, I learned in every place there is good and bad”, says Wandaka Musongera, a refugee from Congo and a coordinator of one of MRC’s initiatives.
Thanks to nonprofit organizations like PeopleFund client Multicultural Refugee Coalition (MRC)which works toward providing training and livelihood opportunities for refugees resettled to Austin, these newcomers have the opportunity to use their skills to fill needed jobs within the Austin area. Meg Erskine, MRC CEO and co-founder, said “We are very happy to be able to link the unique skills that many refugees bring to meaningful livelihood opportunities here in their new community”. They create livelihood opportunities for refugees from war-torn countries in the Austin area in the areas of textile manufacturing, language services and farming.
MRC believes that refugees are capable of supporting their families and contributing to their new communities. They create livelihood opportunities for refugees through skills-based education and social entrepreneurship.
One of the social enterprises that MRC operates a textile manufacturing studio called Open Arms where refugees are employed at a fair wage to produce private label textiles for a variety of designers such as Newton Supply Company and Miranda Bennett Studio as well as big name retailers such as IKEA. MRC runs a sewing training program that equips women with skills and a new home-based sewingmachine to advance their skills and opportunities of being able to be referred for work at Open Arms, open up a small business from their home and/or simply provide a sense of self-sufficiency and satisfaction of making clothes and home goods for themselves and others.
Thang Zuali is one of the refugee women that successfully completed the Open Arms sewing training course. She was born and raised in Burma and was forced to flee because of internal conflict in her country. She picked up sewing techniques quickly despite having no prior experience. Within a year she was promoted to lead production specialist, Thang commented “Open Arms helped me and my family. I was able to buy a car and support my children’s education.” She manages customers’ design specifications and ensures order fulfillment for clients such as IKEA and Newton Supply Company. Open Arms became IKEA’s first US social enterprise partner by launching an upcycled home good line in IKEA stores in Texas.
The Multicultural Refugee Coalition also has an initiative called the New Leaf Refugee Agriculture Program whose coordinator is, Wandaka Musongera, a war refugee from Congo. The program offers refugees from traditional farming cultures the chance to “get their hands back in the dirt” and cultivate a piece of land in their new community. New Leaf participants are growing fresh, healthy food for their families, saving money, exercising and connecting with others. MRC hopes to someday transform this program into a thriving Farm to Market business.
Another initiative of MRC is called the Shared Voices Interpreter Training Program. The program offers two levels of skilled training, an Introduction to Community Interpreting course and a Medical Terminology for Interpreters course. The goal of this program is to not only allow refugees to earn supplemental income but also provide a critical link to their communities and to the City of Austin through language access. MRC hires directly from the interpreter program trained pool of graduates whenever they need interpreters for other MRC programs.
Income that they generate from their initiatives is reinvested back into MRC programs. MRC has supported nearly 1000 refugees from more than 20 war-torn or conflict area countries. If you like to see this count go up there are many ways for you to help. You can partner/collaborate with them through one of their initiatives. You can donate or introduce prospective donors and grantors that are willing to fund their programs. You can also volunteer to share your time and skills to support their various initiatives. Start by visiting their website: http://www.mrcaustin.org/