Mask sewing project among Chicago refugee groups leads to new career goal: ‘This is my job’

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CHICAGO — From her dining room table in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood, Sandra Muyumba some nights doesn’t even want to sleep because of how focused she’s become on making face masks.

Just weeks ago, Muyumba, 48, had never made a face mask but now she’s gotten the technique down to 20 minutes, five minutes for cutting and the rest spent sewing. Her husband helps her iron the masks. Muyumba, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who spent time in Namibia, is part of the Sewing Studio group. put together by RefugeeOne, which has made 1,000 masks to be donated to various community groups.

“I’m starting a bit late, not early in the morning because I need to do the house chores,” Muyumba said by phone about her routine. “I cook then I cannot stand up to do anything. I have to sit and do my work.”

RefugeeOne, a resettlement agency based in Chicago, got a grant from a local church to undertake the project, said Jims Porter, a spokesman for the organization. They’ve delivered masks to groups such as Selfhelp Home and other local organizations, Porter said. Annie Kaufman, manager of the Sewing Studio, said they expect to finish the project by this week, although the studio is also working on other projects related to masks.

The group’s effort comes as Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s modified stay-at-home order was scheduled to go into effect Friday, requiring anyone older than 2 years old to wear a face mask or covering while inside stores. The order didn’t specify if runners or those walking for exercise will have to wear one but states that individuals will be required to wear a mask “in a public place where they can’t maintain a 6-foot social distance.”

Other organizations that work with refugees have also started making masks. Rebecca Hamlin Green, social enterprise coordinator for Catholic Charities, said their existing Loom program, which helps refugee women sell handmade products, has pivoted to making masks. Those masks are being distributed to seniors in Catholic Charities programs.

Daily life for refugees has been upended during the pandemic. Some are working on the front lines while others are navigating unemployment. Advocates say while refugees are often seen as the most protected group of immigrants, they are more at risk of receiving fewer resources than they have in the past.

At RefugeeOne’s Sewing Studio, the women had the option of getting paid $1 per mask, although some opted to not get paid. Porter said the money was not meant to be a full-time living wage but a reward for doing the classwork which could translate into a new job skill.

“Even before the stay-at-home order, this income was a huge boost for our sewers,” Kaufman said.

Some of the studio’s participants had never worked before joining the Sewing Studio, Porter said. It helps them gain independence by learning a skill and doing things such as riding the CTA when the group met in person. Now, RefugeeOne workers delivery materials to the women and pick up the masks.

“It’s very empowering,” Porter said about the studio. “It’s a really good picture of how resettlement should work.”

For Muyumba, the opportunity came just after the factory she worked at temporarily shuttered because of concerns surrounding COVID-19. She saw a news segment about people making masks for others and was intrigued. She had done some tailoring work before she came to the U.S. and figured she could easily learn how to make a mask.

Muyumba learned about the project because she and her family were already in contact with RefugeeOne as the agency tried to help the family navigate unemployment. RefugeeOne gave her a sewing machine to make the masks.

While the work has helped her pass the time at home, it has also made her think about shifting her career goals after the pandemic.

“This is my job,” she said. “I need to continue, maybe I can get the opportunity to get a job in the fabric (industry). I’m very interested in doing it.”


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