Barb Unger stood at a tall table, carefully inspecting a stack of baby onesies to make sure the bright orange llamas were properly appliqued to the front.
“You really don’t even need to check Lun’s, because it’s always perfect,” Unger noted.
What once was a chemistry lab at the former St. John the Baptist High School has since become the headquarters for Forai (Friends Of Refugees And Immigrants), a nonprofit organization founded in 2009 that partners with immigrant and refugee women, teaching them artisan skills, such as sewing and jewelry-making, and providing other job skills, peer support and connections to other resources. The organization is one of several in the former high school that serves as a resource to immigrants and refugees. (See related.)
Unger is a regular volunteer with Forai, checking the women’s handiwork, offering guidance where needed. A member of the parish quilters’ group, Unger has had a talent for sewing since she learned the skill in high school.
“Sometimes they’re happy to see me, but other times, when I have to correct their work, not so much,” Unger joked.
After her retirement, Unger did a day of reflection, and created a statement of purpose, adding ideas of new ways to serve the Lord. “This gives me the chance to use the talents that I hadn’t used in a long time,” she said. “I find myself looking forward to coming up here on Wednesdays. The kids smile when they see me.”
Forai started after founder Jennifer Owens and her family hosted several newly arrived immigrant and refugee families at her home for Thanksgiving dinner. She met a woman who was a single mother, with not much of an education and lacking English skills. How could someone like her survive here, she thought? Owens turned to the idea of teaching immigrant and refugee women skills where they could use their hands, but give them something that would eventually help them find longer-term employment.
Owens began hosting sewing classes at her church, New City Fellowship. At first, several women from Nepal came, and the group slowly began to grow as word got out. At first, all who helped were volunteers; by 2017, the organization had moved into rented space at the former St. John the Baptist High School. Now there are 11 immigrant and refugee women, primarily from Myanmar and Nepal, who make handcrafted jewelry, clothing and accessories.
“I just felt the need was right there before me,” Owens said. “God just kept bringing along people who had a heart for this.”
Items are sold at several boutiques across the St. Louis area, at festivals and online at forai.org. The women are paid a fair wage of $11 an hour. They’re given the supplies to make the items at home, with training taking place on site at Forai. Many of them have small children, who they’re able to bring along with them to work, too.
Thinking back to the single mom she met at the dinner, Owens said she tried putting herself into the woman’s shoes.
“I lived overseas in Russia for five years — my husband and I were missionaries there,” she said. “Not exactly the same situation, but I kept putting myself into, ‘What if I was living there, and I had to go find a job and support my family?’ My desire was just to find a way for women to take care of their families when they don’t have the skills they need to land a job.”
One of Owens’ star employees, Lun, developed her skills as a seamstress through Forai, eventually rising to the role of assistant sewing coordinator. As a child growing up in Chin State, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Lun and her family did not have much. They lived under the harsh treatment of a military dictatorship in their small village.
“I hated to go outside,” she said, adding that the military was often present in her village. “Sometimes they hit people.”
Lun had always wanted to learn how to sew. Her grandmother owned an antique sewing machine, but Lun was shooed away whenever she tried using it. The parts were expensive to replace, her grandmother told her, and not easily accessible, either. When she joined Forai, Lun joined a sewing class and her talent quickly emerged.
Lun fled her village at the age of 15, walking for over a month to reach Malaysia, where she ended up working 12-hour days in a Chinese restaurant to support herself. She eventually met someone, and they married and had a child. After several years of waiting, the family was approved for resettlement in St. Louis, arriving in 2010.
She earned a high school diploma in Myanmar, but immigrating to another country, “it’s just harder to get to show that you are smart,” Owens said. “She catches on to things so quickly, not just sewing. She’s taken on other people’s duties. She’s been so invaluable.”
Unger said she’s glad to see new life in the former high school building. Even with a language barrier, “they’ve been very friendly to me. The mission really appealed to me — trying to help them learn something new and be more confident. This is a good way to give back.”
New life at former St. John the Baptist High School
nonprofit organizations, many of whom work with immigrants and refugees
and others in need in the St. Louis area, have been renting space at
the former St. John the Baptist High School, which closed in 2008.
Father Carl Scheble, former pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish,
described it as a “wonderful synergy of helping the poor, immigrants and
refugees.” Organizations include:
Billiken Teacher Corps: www.billikenteachercorps.org
Campus Outreach: costl.org
Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Program: irwpstl.org
Interfaith Committee on Latin America: stl-ifcla.org
Kupinger Theater Korps: kurtainkall.org
St. Francis Community Services: sfcsstl.org
Forai’s products are sold at several stores in
the St. Louis area, including Zee Bee Market, Urban Matter,
Wildflowers, Mercy Retreat and Conference Center and The Nook. Items
also can be purchased online at forai.org.
seeks volunteers, including those who could serve as sewing mentors,
helping to teach jewelry-making or with sales. Marketing and sales
internships are available by the semester. For more information on
volunteering, visit forai.org or email [email protected]