When Racquel Knight, a Jamaican immigrant, met Fadila, a recently-arrived Iraqi refugee, the two bonded over their childhood education, which focused on learning trades like sewing and weaving.
But it wasn’t just idle conversation.
Knight, 27 and a student at Becker College in Worcester, is helping Fadila and refugees like her turn their skills into viable businesses. The unique program is part of the “Social Business” course that Becker College offers. This year, the course is partnering with a local refugee advocacy organization, connecting students with refugee craft makers.
In Worcester, a city of 180,000 people, there is a significant immigrant population to draw from. There are around 36,000 foreign-born residents, about 21 percent of the total population, according to a2015 report.They include a good number of entrepreneurs, with immigrants comprising37 percentof the city’s small business owners.
The Becker College class is trying to help along that kind of entrepreneurial spirit among the refugees.
As the culmination of the semester, the refugees working with the Becker class will display their creations on Sunday, as part of an event called, “Students and Refugee Artists Together: A Celebration of Indigenous Craft and Social Business.” It will take place on the school’s Leicester Campus, at 964 Main St., in Leicester.
Taylor Caforio, a senior at Becker, is president of the school’s business club and a member of the Students and Refugee Artisans Together advisory board. The organization partnered with Refugee Artisans of Worcester, which helped organize Sunday’s event, and connected Becker with the refugees.
When refugees come to the United States, they are searching for a better life while also struggling to fit in, speak the language, get a job and earn a living.
“These refugees, it took a very long time for them to get [to the U.S.], up to 20 years just in refugee camps, and the fact that they’re here now is great,” Caforio said. "But they don’t have a secure economic standing.”
Helping them pursue their crafts as a business provides a link to their culture, not to mention future possibilities and potentially, extra money, said Debra Pallatto-Fontaine, a professor at Becker College.
Dar Ku, a refugee from Burma, is one of the artisans getting help with her business plan.
She works at a local TJ Maxx clothing store warehouse by day, and in her spare time, also weaves traditional Burmese scarves, shirts and skirts. They will be for sale Sunday, whenmore than 20 refugees will have a chance to show off their work. Crafted baskets, embroidery, weaving and stone cutting will also be available.
Caforio said there is a demand for those kinds of authentic, hand-crafted wares. "But what refugees are lacking is a business background to get things going," he said. "That’s where the college, the business club and the [social business] classroom come in.”
ToKnight, who will be speaking at Sunday's crafts exhibit, it will also be a chance to show the community what refugees and immigrants can contribute.
“One thing I want to do in my presentation tell what a refugee is, as humanly as possible. These people are human and just had a sticky situation,” she said. “All they want to do is sit in and be a part of the U.S.”