Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Piecing Together a Relationship

Top Row: Huang Nan, Heh Ler Pa, Bo Meh, Meh Mo, Ko Meh
Middle Row: Ee Ee Phioye, Hser Ku Moo, So Meh, Ku Lo and Ma Lay
Bottom Row: Law Gay, Oo Meh, Neh Meh, Not Do Hen, Kar Noo
These are (most of) the women of HCHT. They are some of the most beautiful women I know. They are also some of the hardest women to get to know. Our three years in relationship with the artisans of HCHT is full of tales of miscommunication. When we said bring back one rice bag tote bag and we'll see how it sells, we received more than 100. When we were out of town for 4th of July, we prepped the class for weeks, but still heard that a group gathered outside the locked Village Center wondering where we were.

It's been difficult to establish meaningful relationships when much of the time we feel like we're not able to communicate basic information. This year when we met with the Board (yes, we have a Board!) in January, we felt called to immerse ourselves deeper into these relationships instead of expanding our reach wider to other refugee groups. We've been blessed to have Dr. Salai come to our meetings and help bridge the language gap. We've also been able to meet with many of the women in their homes and hear their stories. They share stories of struggle and--without exception--incredible strength and faith in the midst of it.

This week, I've been sorting through the bags and getting some ready to sell online. It's interesting to see how the personalities of the women are apparent in their weaving and sewing.

Meh Mo's weaving (her blue diamond and X pattern is below) is meticulous and symmetrical, precise and professional. She's the go-to weaver for new product design. But I've also noticed that she enjoys experimenting with different styles, patterns and colors. She likes to play and be creative. Meh Mo is the oldest girl of 10 children. While her other siblings were able to go to school, she stayed back and helped care for the younger children, the farm and the house. She told us that her mother wasn't a big weaver, but she would visit other women in their small village and learn from them. Then she would come home and "play around". I see Meh Mo now so clearly in her work--the perfectionism of the oldest child, the years of careful research and listening, and the joy she finds in the creative play in her craft.

Not Do Hen has been with HCHT since close to the beginning. I've always had a crush on her bags (2nd down on the right). They are rustic and raw and pretty and soft at the same time. She weaves by putting stakes in the tiny patch of dirt outside her apartment and sitting on the ground to weave.We also know her through her daughter, a beautiful teenager who radiates the love and warmth we're sure she received from her mother. I've come to think of her as a hardscrabble woman who is raw and honest, but overarchingly nurturing, loving and kind.

Ku Lo is our super sewer. It's been a struggle finding sewing projects that are easy to make, easy to sell and use sustainable materials. She has had the patience of a saint as she sewed bag after bag and earned little. She has the kind of sticktoitiveness  I admire. And she's also one of the most positive, energetic and funny people I know. She has the entire class in stitches at least once a meeting. Dr. Salai will just look at us, shrug his shoulders and say, "Doesn't translate." Even without translation, I know her through her work. The simple, perfect stitches, the odd zippers I'm guessing she gathered from used clothing at Goodwill, and her ability to stay upbeat when months and months go by with little results from hard work.

It's been so much fun this week playing with bags and realizing that the clues to knowing these women are threaded throughout their work. No wonder I'm having a hard time putting them up for sale!  I'm reminded of a passage in Matthew 7 where Jesus says we will know people by the fruit they produce. In their weaving, in the character of their children, and in their stories of interminable faith and strength, we have come to know the artisans this year on a much deeper level. And for that, we are truly grateful, blessed and honored.


Friday, October 22, 2010

What is Really Lost in Translation

Dr. Salai
It is difficult for us, the American volunteers, to communicate with our artisans. Part of that difficulty is language--some of our women speak Burmese, the ones who could afford to go to town or to a school where they learned the national language. Some of them only speak their hill tribe dialect, Karen, Karenni, Kachin or Shan. So when our Burmese translator is there, we often need a second translator (usually a sister or friend) to translate into the hill tribe dialect. One of our weavers, Oo Meh, is hard of hearing. When Oo Meh is there, we will say something in English, Dr. Selai (our beloved Burmese translator) repeats it in Burmese, then Koe Meh shouts it into Karenni for her sisters, Oo Meh and Meh Mo. It's an awkward (and sometimes loud) way to communicate, but we laugh a lot about it.

We limp along in our many languages. But no language can prepare me to understand what happened to the women in Burma. When we ask the how they came over here, their answers are usually simple: "The army came to our village, we fled across the jungle, then we stayed in Thailand for 19 years." Or, "When the army came, we hid in the jungle. My father was killed by a landmine. My mother helped the rest of us cross the border." And I cannot fathom what that must be like.

Nothing in my privileged American framework gives me any understanding of the terrible indecision they describe, of not knowing whether they should run when a messenger comes (if one comes at all) saying the junta is not far behind. Because leaving doesn't just mean running for their lives, it means leaving behind everything they have ever known, the fields their families have worked for generations without end, the huts they built with their hands or their parents built, the hills that nurtured them and sustained their families. I cannot imagine watching my father killed by a landmine in the jungle.  I cannot think of fleeing with my own two daughters nto a jungle filled with landmines. I don't know the stench of death, I can't smell my village burning. I don't remember being parted from my husband and never seeing him again. Those are not things I can fathom.

That history is part of our artisans. Every time we hear a story, we peel back a layer of their past and learn more about who they are and what they've overcome. And now, the daily courage they have to face an uncertain future, bewildering bureaucracy, a country that moves too fast in too many directions, humbles me. We are motivated and blessed by the strong, courageous women they are. 


Monday, October 18, 2010

ARTreach 2010 - Telling the Stories

Have we mentioned how much we love ARTreach? We're a little over a month away from the day we look forward to every year. It's the "flagship" event for Hill Country Hill Tribers and features other fair trade vendors representing artisans in need from all over the world. There will be kid's activities, live world music and a unique collection of fair trade jewelry, bags, toys, gifts, coffee and chocolate. So save the date and spread the word! We look forward to seeing all of you there.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

May I Have the Definition, Please?

Just three short years ago, I had no idea that Austin was home to thousands of international refugees. In fact, I probably couldn't have told you what the term refugee meant. My entire understanding of the refugee story was limited to the 1986 made-for-TV movie, The Girl Who Spelled Freedom.
It's an inspiring true story of a Cambodian family who escaped the ravages of war. They are taken in by a well-to-do suburban family in middle Tennessee and struggle through language and cultural barriers, at one point preferring to sleep on the floor in a huddle than on the nice beds provided for them. Through the help of committed mentors and teachers, 10-year-old Linn Yann emerges as a prodigy, learns English quickly and goes on to compete in the national spelling bee.

That movie captivated my 8-year-old attention. I couldn't imagine the atrocities of war or having to leave my home for good. But the 8-year-old me also relished in the happy ending. "The good American family helped the good Cambodian family and now we're all done," I thought. And sadly enough, I felt "all done" in regards to the global refugee crisis until more than 20 years later. 

So, what is a refugee? In short, it's a person who has had to leave their home and can't go back. This is due to a variety of reasons, including race, religion and political affiliation. 

It looks like this.
 And this.
 And this.
 And this.
And it's happening in the world as I type. Today. 

The 8-year-old girl inside me wants to hide from these images. To be honest, the 32-year-old inside me does, too. I don't know how to solve the refugee crisis and I'm not sure why it's allowed to continue. I do know that I am a better wife, mother, friend and worker because of the people I have met and worked alongside for the past three years. And I'm honored to have friends who recognized the hurting in our community and dragged me along for the ride. 


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Together for Adoption thoughts

We spent a great day yesterday learning from and meeting from amazing people. At the adoption conference, I'm primarily there as a mother. Karyn Purvis makes me want to change my approach to my parenting now, much less in the future when we adopt. But one of the things she said yesterday particularly stood out to me.

When adopting children who have been through some sort of trauma, whether it be large or small (and all adoptive children have gone through some sort of loss), she kept talking about going to them to join them in their grief rather than making them come to us. I had not associated my desire to adopt with our work with the hilltribers, but that idea connected with me in both ways. We work with people facing the grief of losing their culture and identity, after they have already lost their homes, children or spouses or parents, livelihoods, dignity, and sense of self. The least we can do is go to them and join them in their grief. We can do what Christ did. That's what the name Immanuel means--God among us.