As a fellow at Collateral Repair Project, I’ve been put in charge of running Hope Workshop, a craft collective for refugee women. It’s been two months, and what I can say with certainty is that I never feel bored. I’ve spent an entire Saturday assembling Ikea furniture, one whole session working with the women to pick thread colors for embroidered tote bags, and far more time than I would like hearing complaints about sewing machine jams — which I am somehow expected to know how to address.
There are also the more standard aspects of running a program such as writing budgets, managing social media, organizing trainings, and coordinating on monitoring and evaluation. While these are the more “important” aspects of my job, I often find them overshadowed by the reality of the workshop. I’ll be in a meeting strategizing sales when suddenly one of the women comes in and, with a sincere apology for the interruption, proceeds to ask me the proper placement of the penguin on our advent calendar.
My Arabic vocabulary has expanded to include ironing, sewing needles, sand paper, bobbins, and my personal favorite, tassels — which I now know in both the Syrian/Jordanian dialect (dandoushe) and Iraqi (karkoushe). This week, one of the women pricked her finger during the embroidery session and asked me for a kishtiban. I didn’t know the word, but looking at her finger assumed this was the Iraqi term for a bandaid. “Yeah of course we have one.” She looked surprised. I ran across the center, and returned triumphantly, band aid in hand. She took one look at it, and immediately began to laugh. “No! The metal thing to put over your finger!” I made a mental note: kishtiban = thimble.
One of my main goals in coordinating the program, however, is to empower the women to take on more responsibility within the workshop. Thus, despite the constant questions about production, due to my complete lack of craft experience and refusal to learn where any of the materials are stored, the women have been increasingly taking over the daily management of the workshop. When someone asks me how to attach straps to our tote bag or which stitch they should be using to embroider a specific flower, I simply laugh and ask them, “You think I know?” More and more, they rely on each other, and somehow, they always figure it out. They find the tape they were searching for or fix the seam that was crooked. I return to my color-coded spreadsheets, and work for a few minutes — until someone comes in with another question.