Magazine article The Christian Century

Weaving New Lives

Magazine article The Christian Century

Weaving New Lives

Article excerpt

THE DAY the women of the Ritsona refugee camp in Greece wove their first welcome mat, they let out a cheer. Regina Mullins, a woman from Thistle Farms in Nashville, Tennessee, was there to hear it. The mat was a simple thing: a two-foot-by-three-foot floor covering woven from discarded materials, including parts of the life preservers that refugees had worn on their voyages across the Mediterranean. When the first one came off the loom, Mullins said, the women "were jumping and shouting and hollering and crying and laughing."

But what was one welcome mat in the midst of an international refugee crisis comprising 65 million people? Each of the nine women in the weaving circle had lost everything when they left home, and there were 300 more women in the Ritsona camp alone who lacked economic resources of any kind. In 2016, 80,000 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and other countries requested asylum in Greece. In the fall of 2017,1,000 refugees a week were arriving on the shores of the Greek islands.

Last year, approximately 10,000 children went missing from refugee camps across Europe. European Union officials believe that they were lured into the sex trade, and this fact suggests the terrible economic and social vulnerability of the women who lived in storage containers turned into living and work space.

Katina Saoulli, who runs an NGO for refugees called I AM YOU, which partnered with Thistle Farms to bring the weaving project to Ritsona, knew that behind the cheers was some skepticism on the part of the weavers and other women in the camp.

"There were women who said, 'It is too much work; it is not enough money,'" she said. They were tempted to say to other participants, "You are being ridiculous. You are becoming slave labor." And compared to the obstacles the women would have to overcome to find stability and a viable new life, producing one welcome mat for sale looked like nothing much.

The idea of a refugee-run economic enterprise of weaving mats, using discarded life preservers, blankets, and mountains of donated clothing, was the brain child of Mullins's colleague, friend, and mentor, Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest in Nashville. More than 20 years ago, Stevens started the Magdalene project, creating a home for women who were trying to leave the streets, jail cells, and lives of drug addiction and prostitution. It wasn't long before she recognized that while the women could get clean, get off the drugs, and start over, they could not convince employers to hire them.

Mullins, who was the fifth woman to move into Magdalene House, recalls how the women had been going to the career center, creating resumes, and applying for jobs,. When they discovered that they could not get those jobs, Mullins said, it was "a self-esteem buster." "We started telling Becca, 'Nobody is going to give us a chance.' She believed in us, but nobody else did at that time."

Mullins remembers the day that Stevens announced the women were going to go into business for themselves and start making candles. As she recalls, Stevens came in one day, and said, '"You know what we are going to do? We are going to start making candles to support ourselves.'" Mullins says her reaction was as skeptical as the women at the Ritsona refugee camp. "I said, 'Girl ... what are you talking about? We don't know how to make candles.'"

Thistle Farms, the social enterprise wing of Magdalene, now supports more than 40 projects that partner with women to develop self-sustaining businesses in corners of the world where there is little hope and little opportunity. Mullins has seen it happen time and again: women who have lost everything find a way to start over. Getting some help from Thistle Farms, they start to transform their lives and communities. This is Mullins's own story, and she was seeing it lived out again in Greece.

Stevens dreamed up the idea of making welcome mats while on a hike and thinking about the world's refugee crisis. …

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