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Melding Cultures, Fashioning New Lives

“My family fled in the middle of the night. We left everything, and that was the last sight of my old life . . . For many years, I didn’t know where I belonged, but now I have a new family at my Re:new.” —Hari, a Bhutani refugee woman. by Dawn Kotapish ’92

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ScarvesOne day in 2001, while living in Nairobi, Rebecca Seneff Sandberg ’99 wandered down a path lined with papaya and avocado trees. Her baby son in tow, she followed the beat of women’s voices singing hymns in Swahili.

This music feels like home, she thought before stumbling upon a gathering of about 50 women—all refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Congo, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Rwanda. Members of a thriving micro- enterprise called Amani Ya Juu, the women gathered every day to learn to sew and to create saleable products.

For five years, while her husband, Roger Sandberg, Jr. ’00, did humanitarian aid work throughout East Africa, Rebecca came alongside this refugee community. She helped them design products and listened to their stories of bottomless pain and uncommon resilience.

When the Sandbergs returned to the Wheaton area in 2007, Rebecca found herself aching for Kenya and her community of women. Then, one snowy night while making a run to Target, she spied a woman walking alongside the road dressed in loose African Kitenge cloth. She followed the woman home and knocked on her door.

“I was greeted with a burst of heat [and] the reminiscent smell of spices,” Rebecca recalls. Surrounded by children once inside, Rebecca learned that the family members were refugees from Somalia. “You can give me a job?” the woman asked.

Two years later, the woman (named Majush) became the first student artisan at Re:new—the volunteer-led nonprofit Rebecca founded in 2009 that provides community-based training and employment to refugee women living in DuPage County, Illinois.

Since its inception, Re:new has trained more than 70 refugee women, providing flexible schedules and viable income. Re:new artisans create housewares, baby gifts, bags, and accessories from recycled cloth.

With 22 sewing machines on location, Rebecca has not yet had to turn away any potential students. But as more of Illinois’ 136,000 refugees migrate from the city to the suburbs, the need may grow. According to the Illinois Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Services, five years ago 85 percent of the state’s refugees lived in Chicago. Today that number has decreased to 60 percent, with 54,000 refugees making their homes in the suburbs.

Re:new operates with a fleet of about 45 volunteers—80 percent of whom are Wheaton alumni. For Rebecca, this kind of investment in time and resources is a no-brainer. “There is nothing in me that can turn my back on someone whose entire life has been taken away,” she says, reflecting on some of the stories she’s encountered over the years. One woman’s arms had been hacked with machetes and her skin burned. Another had to drink urine to stay alive while fleeing rebel forces. Most recently, a woman escaped Syria with her daughter but was forced to leave her two sons behind.

“As the artisans find their stories, we find our own stories,” Rebecca says. “For more than a decade, these stories of enormous challenge and incredible courage have stitched themselves into the fabric of my own story, giving me a hunger to act. When we look poverty of body or mind in the eye, life cannot ever be the same.”

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