Arts & Culture

Houston’s Refugee Artisans Embrace The Gift Of Financial Independence

With the holidays approaching, their handmade products are in high-demand.

Ilham Dawood has been knitting scarfs, headbands and hats for nearly ten years through The Community Cloth.

Refugee women are gaining financial independence through a unique Houston-area program called The Community Cloth.

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The program currently supports 33 Houston-based artisans by selling their products, teaching them about local trends, offering workshops and training to improve techniques, and helping them manage their finances.

Many of the artisans have never had a bank account in their home countries, so The Community Cloth also helps them open an account and manage their earnings.

"They learn how to do direct deposit and really take ownership of their income, which is something that many of them hadn't been able to do before," said Gislaine Williams, Community Relations Director for The Alliance, the refugee organization that now runs The Community Cloth.

 

  • Kaila Lewis oversees The Community Cloth program for The Alliance refugee organization. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Trovall/Houston Public Media)
    Kaila Lewis oversees The Community Cloth program for The Alliance refugee organization. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Trovall/Houston Public Media)
  • Handmade shoes for little ones. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Trovall/Houston Public Media)
    Handmade shoes for little ones. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Trovall/Houston Public Media)
  • Inside The Community Cloth office where refugee women can work on creating their handmade products like tote bags, scarfs and hats. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Trovall/Houston Public Media)
    Inside The Community Cloth office where refugee women can work on creating their handmade products like tote bags, scarfs and hats. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Trovall/Houston Public Media)
  • Brightly colored pouches are also available at The Community Cloth. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Trovall/Houston Public Media)
    Brightly colored pouches are also available at The Community Cloth. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Trovall/Houston Public Media)
  • Handmade products are made for both adults and children. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Trovall/Houston Public Media)
    Handmade products are made for both adults and children. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Trovall/Houston Public Media)
  • Each of Dawood's knitted scarfs take multiple days to complete.  (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Trovall/Houston Public Media)
    Each of Dawood's knitted scarfs take multiple days to complete. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Trovall/Houston Public Media)
  • Kaila Lewis oversees The Community Cloth program for The Alliance refugee organization. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Trovall/Houston Public Media)
    Kaila Lewis oversees The Community Cloth program for The Alliance refugee organization. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Trovall/Houston Public Media)

Ilham Dawood has been knitting for The Community Cloth since arriving to Houston as an Iraqi refugee in 2010.

She said she enjoys buying her own clothes or things for the house with her earnings, but for her, the knitting offers more than some financial freedom.

"The knitting is a cure for me, like the medicine, for my depression,” said Dawood. “I like it."

Since leaving behind her loved ones in war-torn Baghdad, knitting has offered some peace and purpose, Dawood said.

Her hats, scarves, and other goods are sold online, in stores (Forth + Nomad) and at special events.

Scarves are made from bamboo and tencel by refugee artisans from Myanmar.

Though Dawood perfected her knitting skills in the United States, other artisans use skills that have been passed down for centuries.

For example, Williams said refugees from Myanmar have been able to preserve their tradition of backstrap loom weaving since making the move to Houston.

"That's something that had been handed down to them for generations and they're able to continue doing it here in Houston,” said Williams, “And now many of the artisans are passing it down to their teenage daughters as well and their daughters are able to participate in The Community Cloth.”

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