2011. Maria Beltran-Figueroa & Rey Ty. (2011). Weaving Together the Lives oif Refugee Women. Lindenwood University.
Weaving Together the Lives of Refugee Women
Maria Beltran-Figueroa and Rey Ty
Addressing the problems in providing refugee services, this paper discusses a case study
of a participatory action research involving the weaving project of refugee women. Using
feminist post-structuralist deconstructive analysis, this paper dissects the dominant binary
views and practices prevailing in refugee service as well as describes alternative
perspectives and practices. Data were gathered through participant observation, site
visits, community dialogue, and document review. The findings reveal that the alternative
human rights based and culturally sensitive approaches to refugee services promote the
economic and political empowerment of women refugees. As policy implication,
additional services must be made available, which are based upon and respectful of the
prior knowledge, skills, and values of refugees, aside from the important standard
services regularly offered to the refugees.
Statement of the Problem and Assessment of the Need
Based on the literature and actual practice, there are problems in refugee work. One,
well-meaning refugee service providers offer services not appropriate to the needs of refugees.
Two, refugees are treated as outsiders who need knowledge, skills, and values to be productive
members of the new society in which they live, as a result of which, they become alienated in the
host country. Alternative interventions are, therefore, needed to uplift the economic, political,
social, cultural and psychological conditions of refugees. Faced with the challenges of family life
obligations, limited or lack of language proficiency and non-transferable skills, refugee women
need to have an opportunity to be gainfully employed aside from keeping in touch with their own
Research Objective and Questions
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2011a) notes that refugees in the
U.S.A. come from the four corners of the Earth. This research describes a weaving project in
Indianapolis, Indiana, which empowers Karen women refugees from Southeast Asia. This
research addresses the following questions: What are the services available to refugees in the
U.S.A.? What lessons can be learned from the Weaving for Refugee Women Project as a viable
alternative for refugee services?
Article 1 A (2) of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of the United
Nations (2002, p. 630) defines a refugee as a person who was allowing to well- founded fear of
being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social
group or political opinion, is outside the country of his [or her] nationality and is unable, or
owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him [her]self of the protection of that country; or who,
not having a nationality and being outside the country of his [or her] former habitual residence as
a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
This participatory action research (Kemmis & McTaggart, 2000) used the case study
analysis, literature review, document analysis, participant observation, and community dialogue
to identify the various approaches in providing refugee service. Critical lens (Freire, 2005) was
used to view human resource development (HRD). The co-authors, both of whom are HRD
scholars and practitioners, frame refugee services within the broader historical and social context
to advance practices that promote social justice and social responsibility. Reflections on practice
promote critical thinking (Putnam, 1999) as well as generate knowledge and produce action
(Park, 1999). This paper uses post-structural deconstruction (Derrida, 1987) as a tool to study the
binary oppositions by which refugee work is conceived and implemented, the reason for which is
to reveal their mutual interdependence, after which a third way is introduced. By using
deconstruction, we dissect texts (plans) and contexts (practices) in search of contradictions as
well as gaps (Calas & Smirchich, 1999). The mainstream approach to refugee services was
deconstructed to reveal how the dominant culture is privileged, while the multiple cultures of the
refugees—the “others”—are marginalized. Deconstruction dismantles dichotomies as false
oppositions (Bradshaw, 1996). The co-authors of this paper have experience in working with
refugees as well as with refugee service providers. Beltran-Figuroa is a full-time refugee service
professional who is active in Indiana where she coordinates her efforts with several
organizations. Ty, who is a professional working in the field of human resource development,
organizes and leads groups for field visits to refugee service organizations in Illinois and Indiana.
Both Freire (2005) and Zinn (2003) proposed teaching and learning to be based upon
historical, social, economic, political and cultural contexts, the purpose of which is to apply a
pedagogy that is based upon the realities of the learners, in this case, women refugees. Both
Freire (1995) and Zinn (2003) were in favor of teaching and learning that are sensitive to issues
related to culture, ethnicity, gender, and class. By engaging in a dialogue, both (1) the adult
learners and (2) the community and adult educators become co-learners in critically analyzing
social realities and co-constructors of knowledge, which leads to the development of programs
relevant to the learners. In this study, refugees themselves and service providers engage in a
dialogue that led to the birth of the weaving project for refugee women.
Dominant Views and Practices of Refugee Services
We are products of our personal biography, social history, contexts, and cultures.
Refugees—the “others”—come from all over the world, while many refugee service workers—
“us ”—are mostly Whites who carry with them a whole baggage of what is considered correct,
proper, and good. Well-meaning refugee service providers transmit the dominant beliefs and
practices vertically downwards to the refugees whom they serve, the purpose of which is to help
refugees join the mainstream of society and to promote social harmony. The U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services (2011b) reveals that service providers offer invaluable services to
refugees in the U.S.A., without which refugees will be overwhelmed with the prospect of settling
down in a new land. They employ different approaches to help refugees resettle in the United
States. The best practices in their services include, among others, housing, food and living
allowance, health services, cultural adjustment and acculturation, resume writing, interview
preparation, and employment. Traditional “banking” teaching and learning techniques are used
in which omniscient teachers impart new knowledge, skills, and values to learners who are
empty vessels (Freire, 2005).
Reproducing the existing social relations in society, the dominant culture in the hidden
curriculum (Apple, 1971) is legitimized and shapes the training that refugees receive from the
service providers. Powerful refugee service providers help powerless refugees. Refugees do not
have the knowledge, skills, and values to fit into society. Hence, refugees need to acquire
knowledge, skills, and values so that they can be gainfully employed and be a part of the host
country where they live. They are passive recipients of services. The cultures of the refugees are
ignored, if not negated. Job training and job offers are mostly for factory-based labor. Training
includes, among others, preparing résumés, dressing up for interviews, eye contact, and other
related practices and values based on those of the dominant economic and political group.
Through the categories of “us” and the “others,” the experiences and knowledge base of refugees
are marginalized. Refugees are cultural outsiders who learn from refugee service providers who
are cultural insiders. By privileging the cultural insiders, alternative beliefs and practices are
made invisible. In a word, refugees are taught to assimilate into the mainstream of society.
Alternative Views and Practices of Refugee Services
Questioning the role of training within the broader context of social justice (Gilley &
Associates, 2002) is part of critical reflection (Elliott & Turnbull, 2006). Some refugee service
providers rethink the way by which refugee services are provided, such as the Heartland Alliance
for Human Needs and Human Rights (2011) in Chicago, Illinois. This paper describes the
alternative but complementary best practice in refugee service of the Weaving for Refugee
Women Project of Refugee Resource and Research Institute of Indianapolis, which does not
conform to but adds to the traditional services with which refugees are provided. Instead of a
top-down implementation of services that benefit the refugees, this project relies on two related
bottom-up approaches: (1) cultural sensitivity (Obaid, 2011) and (2) human rights-based
approach (UNDP, 2006). The history, experiences, cultures, and prior knowledge of the adult
refugee learners (Knowles, 1989) are inputs in the development and implementation of the
weaving project. This paper presents the Weaving for Women Project in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Refugees are not empty vessels but partners. Instead of assimilation, refugee services promote
the integration of refugees who are partners in advocacy and development work, taking into
account their prior knowledge, skills and values.
Weaving for Women Project. Indianapolis is home to about 10,000 Burmese, Iraqi, African,
Bhutanese, Meskhetian Turks and other refugees. Over 4,000 are women and girls. Although
they come from varied cultures and backgrounds, they share a history of persecution and
alienation and isolation upon arrival and during the resettlement process. As a central part of
their culture, weaving for some of these women was the only source of comfort and income in
the refugee camps. It is a way to reconnect to a pleasant past and their identity as a people and a
creative way to help heal the trauma of displacement. A gender responsive approach to
addressing poverty reduction, Weaving for Women also aims to address social and mental health
issues that confront women refugees in their resettlement process. It is an expansion of an
existing weaving project that benefits Karen women who are part of the Karen Farm Project
(Beltran-Figueroa & Ty, 2011) that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) funds.
There are about eight hundred Karens in Indianapolis, of which ten Karen families are involved
in the Karen Farm Project. With the positive feedback that includes a feeling of home, happiness
and comfort from the current participants, other women from different refugee groups who come
from a tradition of weaving would benefit from this project as well.
Implementation of the Project. Ten Karen women who can not participate in the larger Karen
farm project are involved in the weaving project. The women refugees have a bi-monthly
meeting with the project manager to discuss progress and challenges.
Refugee Resource promotes a participatory approach in its implementation of projects. The
principles guiding this highly respectful approach are: taking responsibility and learning from
decision; partnership; celebrate, appreciate and recognize each other’s strength, recognizing
expertise, personal and group experience to transcend barriers leading to integration;
accountability and taking charge of one’s life.
Being a component of the Karen Farm Project, funds to purchase seven back-strap looms
and thread and other weaving materials came from the Farmers Market Promotion Program of
the U.S. Department of Agriculture to benefit women who can not work in the farm. The women
keep the looms in their apartments where all the weaving is done.
Explored in this paper is the weaving project for Karen refugees in Indianapolis. On the
one hand, this paper uncovered the privileged views and practices of dominant approach to
refugee services. Because many well-intentioned refugee service workers lack deep knowledge
of the social history and cultures of refugees whom they serve, one-way transfer of knowledge,
skills, and attitudes leads to inefficiency, mismatched employment, low overall satisfaction, and
low quality of life of refugees. The knowledge base, skills and values of the refugees—the
“others”—are rendered invisible. On the other hand, this paper presents alternatives.
Contributions of the Study
This research is important for three reasons. One, due to economic, social, political, and
cultural crises taking place in different parts of the world today, many people flee their countries
of origin to seek refuge in other countries, among which the U.S.A. Clearly, practitioners, such
as service providers who are engaged in adult, continuing, extension, and community education,
need to respond to the influx and needs of refugees. Two, mainstream refugee services, though
necessary, are insufficient in responding to the needs of refugees. This paper contributes to the
literature and practice, as it investigates a non-traditional project that benefits refugees. The co-
authors of this paper assert that for efforts to help refugees to succeed, the rights and cultures of
refugees must be central in the thinking, planning, implementation, and evaluation of projects
that seek to help refugees in the first place. Three, while all refugees have common concerns,
women refugees have specific concerns, which adult, continuing, extension, and community
education needs to address, which is a central concern of this paper. In general, this paper
provides new insights from which practitioners can learn lessons in planning for other refugee
projects that benefit refugees who are community-based adult learners.
Implications of the Study for Practice
Lessons learned from the historical and social context reveal the importance of culture in
advancing the interest of refugees in their personal and professional life. This paper analyzed the
weaving project in Indianapolis. At the minimum, it provided a sense of satisfaction and
fulfillment for the project participants, as they are able to practice their tradition of weaving as
well as produce useful cultural artifacts. Furthermore, for those who consider weaving as a full-
time job, they treat weaving as an economic activity that gives them gainful employment and
economic empowerment. Weaving for Women promotes economic independence and helps cut
the cost of social aid, as they are not a burden to the host community and are capable of
supporting themselves in a dignified and self-affirming manner. It also enhances the chances for
a sustainable and durable solution to many challenges associated with resettlement and
integration. The project provides lessons for culturally sensitive economic development within
the framework of indigenous cultures and practices. Putting an economic value in their tradition
also addresses the mental health challenges faced by refugees by engaging in an activity familiar,
comforting, and therapeutic to them. They also get to interact with other women who share the
same struggles and concerns. See Table 1 for the summary of the findings.
Table 1: Deconstruction of Refugee Services
The Third Way
1. Views Us The others All of us
2. People White citizens International refugees Unity in Diversity
3. Roles Service Providers Beneficiaries Partners
4. Basis of
Hidden curriculum in
No knowledge, skills
skills and values
5. Immigration The Others’ Assimilation to the Hegemony Integration
6. Power &
Powerful Powerless Empowerment of
7. Side Insiders Outsiders Together
8. Culture Dominant Culture Marginalized Culture Multiculturalism
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Maria Beltran-Figueroa, Director, Refugee Resource and Research Institute. 2012 Beach Ave.,
Indianapolis, IN 46240-2764, 317-332-2658, firstname.lastname@example.org
Rey Ty, Ed.D., Training Coordinator, International Training Office, Northern Illinois University,
DeKalb, IL 60115, 815-753-1098, email@example.com
Presented at the Midwest Research-to-Practice Conference in Adult, Continuing, and
Community Education, Lindenwood University, St. Charles, MO, September 21-23, 2011.