From Refugees to Artisans

Rebecca Sandberg ’99 started Re:new, a business that provides training, employment, friendship, and a future for refugee women.

Rebecca Sandberg ’99 began working with refugees when she and her husband, Roger ’99, moved to Nairobi, Kenya, after graduating from Wheaton. While Roger worked in development in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rebecca joined a microenterprise, designing textiles and products alongside refugees employed by the organization. When she returned to the States five years later, she says, “We were changed forever.”

One night on her way home from Target she saw a woman in traditional African garb walking through the snow in flip flops.

“I followed her home, knocked on her door, and spent time with her family.” When Rebecca promised to return a few days later, the woman said, “When you come back, bring me a job.” That woman become Re:new’s first student.  The training program, designed specifically for people who do not speak English as their first or second language, prepares students for part-time employment, crafting handbags, accessories, homegoods, baby products, and other unique items. All of Re:new’s textiles are donated, so each creation is one-of-a-kind. Rebecca works as the director and product designer at Re:new. For the first few years their goods were sold during open houses, but last year they launched a store, which is open five days per week, and began online sales.

Rebecca says she is inspired by sitting in the sewing room with these women, hearing their stories, laughing and crying together. “We have always asked, ‘How can we love our neighbor?’ and currently for us that is giving them a job, coming alongside them to hear their stories and give them a place of dignity, and empowering them to have a skill that will last a lifetime.

“These women have crossed borders, walked through the bush, watched their children and husbands die, and they sit in this room with more joy than I. They know they have survived, and they keep surviving. To be in community with people that aren’t like yourself is the only way to do life. It is such a blessing.”

When asked about the challenges in starting a business, Rebecca says the time and paperwork involved is great. Re:new is both a business and a not-for-profit, and she says the biggest challenge has been the legal side of the business. Her advice for someone starting an enterprise like this: “Have a long-term view. Life is about relationships. When starting a business, people should always be the bottom line. At Re:new, we have a very long term view. We’ve watched women have children. We’ve gone with them to get their citizenship…Many cannot sew for various reasons, so we are working on creating other options for them. We are always innovating and trying to meet their needs.”

In looking back at her time at Wheaton, Rebecca says she is thankful for the liberal arts background that helped shape her global perspective. “I was an English major, and I still use my major today, but all of my classes, my trip to the Black Hills, my experience on Wheaton in England, all of that informs what I do today. All of those classes pointed me to go overseas, and I don’t know if we would have gone to Kenya without the understanding of Christianity and the preparation we received at Wheaton.”