Every continent in the world is impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. In St. Louis, remarkable crossroads between communities are emerging in the call to help sustain each other. Through their grant to Forai, the Incarnate Word Foundation is supporting a powerful connection that spans the globe.
“We started Forai in 2009 to serve the most vulnerable among us – recently resettled refugee women,” says Sabra Li, Associate Director. Forai’s mission: to partner with local refugee and immigrant women to enable the realization of economic, educational, and social goals through training and peer support, and by expanding market opportunities for artisans.
In mid-March, pandemic stay-at-home orders forced the cancellation of all Forai training classes and sales events, as well the closure of wholesale partners’ physical locations. “We struggled to keep artisans paid, especially as some in their families lost jobs,” says Sabra.
Forai took a bold step and decided to start teaching their seamstresses to make masks to donate to local health care workers. Donors stepped up to cover transition costs while Forai artisans were taught – via video calls and through windows – how to sew the masks. Forai launched a Buy 1 Give 3 mask campaign on their website and were overwhelmed by the response.
“Since March 27th, we have made and donated almost 3,000 masks to area hospitals, nursing homes, and cancer treatment centers. We have another order for 2,000 masks that we are currently working on and need to fund. The need is so great we hired 3 more seamstresses from our winter sewing class,” explains Sabra. “This gift from the Incarnate Word Foundation couldn’t have come at a better time. The grant will be used to keep our seamstresses employed sewing masks for as long as there is a need.”
One of those seamstresses is Sui (pictured), originally from Burma. The sales from her home-based business making traditional clothes for the Burmese community in St. Louis dried up as weddings and other gatherings were cancelled. Through Forai, she continues to earn income for her family while serving St. Louis healthcare workers.
Vung, another artisan from Burma, is shown with her son, sewing. “Vung started with Forai in 2018 with very little English and no knowledge of sewing. Now, she has been promoted to an Assistant Sales Coordinator position, where she’s learning about coordinating event sales and filling orders from our online store and wholesale partners,” says Sabra. During this time, all event sales are cancelled, so Vung is making up her hours by sewing masks, which also enables her to be home with her children and supervise their schoolwork.
Forai is one of many immigrant-serving organizations housed at St. John the Baptist Parish, in St. Louis’s historic Bevo neighborhood. Incarnate Word Foundation has supported many Bevo neighborhood initiatives over the years. “Funding neighborhood work fosters systemic change by addressing the root causes of poverty and oppression,” explains Bridget Flood, Foundation Executive Director. “It fosters the confidence within individuals to dream while simultaneously creating access to the tools and resources needed to achieve those dreams.”
Forai’s current work, borne out of a global pandemic, has created a “beautiful exchange of refugee artisans,” says Sabra, who are “now in a position to meet the needs of their new community.”