The women designing, sewing and selling items inside a 1,500 square-foot room inside a Pennsylvania Avenue building may not have a lot in common — but they’ve found themselves working together despite language barriers and hardships.
They learn from each other, share laughter and recreate signature items with leftover material from department stores and fabric donated by locals.
The room, located at 250 Pennsylvania Ave., suite 108 in Glen Ellyn, is where Wheaton resident Rebecca Sandberg operates Re:new. Sandberg, who serves as director, started the non-profit in 2009. She hires refugee women to create apparel, bags and other items while they work alongside volunteers who help them navigate America.
“There are marginalized people that live down the street from us. They are our neighbors,” Sandberg said. “The goal is to elevate not only the issues about refugees, but to show how amazing and gifted refugees are.”
Sandberg lived in Kenya with her husband, Roger, for five years, where she worked with a microenterprise that taught women how to sew.
After moving to Wheaton in 2007, Sandberg —who has three children, ages 4, 7 and 10 — decided to use what she learned to make a difference.
“Some people feel they have to go overseas to do something... it’s possible (to do it here,) you just have to leave your comfort zone,” Sandberg said. “You have to break down barriers... but the reward is worth it.”
The idea of Re:new started in 2007, after Sandberg first moved to Wheaton. She was driving home from Target on a cold winter night when she saw someone walking on the side of the road.
The woman was wrapped loosely in African kitenge cloth, so Sandberg followed the woman home to her apartment complex and knocked on the door.
“She invited me in, which I should have realized that of course she would have done, as African culture is so inviting. This family was from Somalia... My very little bits of Swahili came back to me and we managed,” Sandberg wrote in an entry on the Re:new website, renewproject.org. “After a little while I said thank you and decided to go. I gave her a hug. She said, ‘You can give me job? You see many kids? You can give me job?’ I fumbled through a sentence of strange words that really meant nothing and left.”
After meeting the woman, Sandberg started collecting fabric with the Re:new project in mind.
For the past two years, Re:new was only open for the community during two open houses per year. However, in August, Sandberg decided to open Re:new from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday with the help of her new store manager, Nancy Mwendwa.
Mwendwa, who’s from Kenya, come to America in May through the U.S. Green Card Lottery Program. She and Sandberg worked together in Kenya at the microenterprise that taught women to sew. Mwendwa was the store manager.
The two had no idea they would be reunited, let alone living in the same home. Mwendwa currently lives with Sandberg in Wheaton.
At Re:new, Mwendwa works full-time as the manager cutting fabric, working with customers, handling donation receipts and many other tasks.
“It’s really busy but so fun... It looks like sometimes it’s a dream,” she said.
At Re:new, she works with refugee women from Somalia, Ethiopia, India, Tanzania and several other places.
There are about 10 people on staff, more than 30 volunteers, 15 employees and seven students. The staff and volunteers are not paid for their work — only the employees, the refugee women, take home a salary. The women are paid per piece they make.
When refugee women come to Re:new, they fill out an application and attend sewing classes once a week. Classes take anywhere from three weeks to six months depending on the woman’s sewing ability and availability to attend classes.
Then, they are offered a job.
Sandberg said the act of sewing pulls the women together, despite their hardships.
“They’re doing a task together,” Sandberg said. “Creating something together has great power.”
At this point, the nonprofit is almost self-sustainable.
“We had a concept and proved that it works. Now, the question is scale (how big we want this to be,)” said Sandberg, who mentioned she’s considering moving the shop to a more visible location within the next year.
She said regardless of where the shop is located, it needs to be directly next to the studio where the women work because it’s important for both the refugee women and those who purchase the items. Sandberg said when the refugees see people who purchase the items they make, it’s encouraging. And on the other side, customers can see who makes the goods they are purchasing.
“These ladies give so much. I’m honored to work with them,” Sandberg said. “Amazing things happen when you believe in something larger than yourself.”