Friday, September 10, 2010

Hill Country Hill Tribers Background (part 1)

One day, in the fall of 2007, a group of Karen hill tribers walked into a fall festival our church was having in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood in Austin. Seeing a group of hill tribers in a sea of Spanish-speakers was surreal; I had spent two summers in Thailand and visited Karen villages there. These hill tribers wore the same hand-woven clothes, spat the same beteljuice, squatted on the hill in the same way as the villagers I'd visited in Thailand. It took us a few minutes of talking to figure out that they were political refugees living in the apartment complex next door and that they were in need of friendship and support. Over the next few months, our two families and some other people from our church got to know the hill tribers. Caren and I each had an almost-one-year-old. The refugee women had young children as well. We noticed their children didn’t have shoes, though it was a cold winter in Austin. We started by buying shoes. Then we asked the women if they could speak English. When we found out they had a hard time getting to their classes, we started an ESL class for them in their neighborhood. But the more we spent time with them, the more we realized they desperately wanted more than charity. They needed a way to support themselves.

Many of the women stayed at home with small children, but they could weave. So we found a yarn distributor in Maine. And we created a fair trade festival at our church in November to sell their bags. The first year, we made $3000 in four hours. And that’s how our non-profit was born; slowly, over many months, Hill Country Hill Tribers became a way to provide supplemental income to Burmese women who stay home with their children. We began with weavers, but we’ve extended it to women who can or want to learn how to sew. Our sewn products are made from up-cycled rice bags and burlap sacks, keeping our supply cost low and our environmental impact high. We provide our artisans with English and sewing lessons so they can learn employable skills that can translate into jobs in the future. Caren is our Marketing Director; I’m the Educational Development Director. Since we do this as volunteer work on the side, we both do a little bit of everything else, along with our amazing husbands and kids, our fantastic board and the amazing friends who work with us from a variety of churches in Austin. You can find out many of the details on our website,, as well as buy some of our beautiful bags. Some of our artisans have moved on to other jobs; others may never be able to work because of language or other difficulties. New refugees come every few months. We will work as long as we can to help these women support their families.

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