02/10/2017 2:30 PM IST | Updated 05/03/2018 1:01 PM IST

This Immigrant Teaches Sewing Skills To Empower Refugees

An Indian immigrant in Ohio is helping Bhutanese women to be economically independent through her new program.

Dawn Creations
Manju Rastogi

When financial planner Manju Rastogi first arrived in the U.S. from India, back in 1969, she recalls that she had never felt more lonely. The 21-year-old former flight attendant had just gotten married and landed in Troy, Ohio, to start a new life with her husband at the time.

“We were the only Indian couple in that city for three or four years, so it was very isolating having no family and no one to teach you anything,” she told HuffPost. 

The situation worsened after she started having problems in her marriage and found herself having to raise two kids while still adjusting to life in a new country.

“I needed to find a job to make sure me and my children would be alright in case anything happened,” she said.

The challenge of finding work that would fit into her skill set proved to be harder than she thought. In 1976, she left Troy and moved to Akron to pursue a teaching certificate ― but going back to school was soon ruled out, given the required time and monetary investment. An opportunity to work in financial planning came up ― and despite her lack of experience, she decided to give it a shot and “learn on the job.”

“Eventually I would actually become very good at it, to the point that it became my entire career,” she said. 

The struggle to resettle in Ohio and find a place in the job market is not just a big hurdle for Indian immigrants like Rastogi. Stories like hers have been repeated on a larger scale since 2008 as Bhutanese refugees began to arrive in the state from United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) camps in southeastern lowlands of Nepal.

This happened as a result of a 2007 offer under the George W. Bush administration to accept 60,000 Bhutanese refugees of Nepali descent. Although the refugees had fled to Nepal in the 1990s, when thousands were forcibly deported during the ethnic cleansing of Bhutan, they were never integrated in the country and remained isolated in the U.N. camps.

Despite hopes that Nepal would offer the Bhutanese refugees citizenship, political instability made this an unviable option and third-country resettlement began to offer better living conditions to the refugees. 

Ohio was one of the main destinations for the Bhutanese, and data from 2015 shows that there were an estimated 4,000 Bhutanese refugees living in the Akron area.

Watching refugees arrive reminded Rastogi of her own immigrant story.

“I wanted to help people that were facing the same issues as I was 40 years ago,” she told HuffPost.

Clueless about life in the U.S after just coming from camps in Nepal, most refugees had trouble getting settled in the city. They were initially concentrated in certain apartments, where Rastogi would go to offer help.

“Their lives in camps were very restricted, especially for the women,” Rastogi explained. Although the young ones had a higher level of education, the older ones were not very literate.

“By talking to them I realized that these women were in such great need for money that whatever help we could give them had to fit into a money-making project to keep them involved,” she said. “Some of them had sewing training from the camps, and that’s how we had the idea for Dawn Creations.”

Developing Alternatives for Women in New Communities, or DAWN, was founded in 2013 with the goal of helping Bhutanese women improve their sewing skills at a competitive level in the U.S, while also providing community support, empowerment and a place of safety and acceptance. The idea was to give them the necessary resources so they could work as self-employed seamstresses.

To get the organization started, Rastogi collected donations from the local Bath and Fairlawn communities, such as sewing machines, quilting fabric supplies and Indian silk. However, she soon realized that the secondhand gear wouldn’t be sufficient to produce high-quality material. The solution was to apply for grants such as the Knight Foundation and Hillier Family Foundation ― which awarded the organization $17,000 to buy new machinery, fabric and supplies.  

dawn creations
Students are now able to produce a wide range of unique pieces.

The nonprofit was then able to not only offer sewing classes for free, but to also pay the students for their time producing handcrafted material, giving them the opportunity to sell their items in fundraisers and local private parties. 

Despite the different levels of experience, students are now able to produce a wide range of unique pieces, such as felted soap, silk scarves, yoga mat bags, reversible yoga blankets made from cotton saris, kantha quilts, silk iPad cases, bed scarves and cushion covers. They get 80 percent of the sales profit ― and the remaining is used to pay for the nonprofit expenses. The price varies from $10 to $50 for each product. 

Dawn Creations equips each student with a sewing machine, table, cutting tools and supplies that she can take home. To keep the equipment they must attend at least two years of classes, held entirely by volunteers. The meetings happen twice a month on Saturdays, from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., at the Patterson Community Center in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. 

Dawn Creations
With the money from the products they sell, many women were given a chance to carve a path to a better life in Akron.

The classes are not limited to sewing lessons. Bhutanese women also learn how to communicate, get over their shyness, talk to the local community and gain confidence to have a voice in their homes and be successfully self-employed. 

With the money from the products they sell, many women were given a chance to carve a path to a better life in Akron. According to Rastogi, one seamstress was able to buy an apartment with the money she got from selling her products. 

“We have to change their mindset in order to empower and encourage them to accomplish more things,” Rastogi told HuffPost. “In the camps they’re used to working for someone and being told what to do, now they have to be their own bosses and decide what they want.”

As for next steps, Rastogi said she hopes to find more retail companies to sell the refugees’ products. Her program also recently started to accept refugees from other countries, such as the Congo, Pakistan and Afghanistan. For the upcoming classes, experienced students will get a chance to mentor and teach beginners.

“This is a community effort, it’s a two-way street,” Rastogi added. “Akron has gone through an amazing change because of the refugee population that came in ― the refugees provide good quality service and the community returns them with acceptance and mentoring.”