US immigrants are giving back to their new community during the COVID-19 crisis by sewing face masks

Image provided by the Rising Village foundation

Veronica Luquez used to watch her mom sew but was always afraid to try it herself. Originally from Venezuela, Luquez came to the U.S. as an immigrant in 2017 and was asked to join Rising Village Foundation, a nonprofit in Tulsa, Oklahoma that teaches women who are immigrants or refugees how to sew, giving them a way to earn an income, learn social skills and adapt to life in the U.S. 

Participants previously sewed items like bags and money purses to sell to make an income, but now — with the coronavirus epidemic — they have switched to creating face masks. It’s become immigrants helping frontline workers and their new neighbors. 

“It really makes me happy to help other people, so every time I feel the moment, I just do it and it puts a little joy in my heart,” Luquez said. 

Rising Village started after founder Lisa Tresch visited Ghana and saw the need for self-sufficient opportunities for women in the country. She returned to Tulsa and eventually started Rising Village Foundation, which works with immigrant and refugee women across ages and countries of origin. Participants come from various locations, including Venezuela, Peru, Poland and Myanmar. Surprisingly, Tulsa is home to a large minority group from the Chin State in Myanmar – formerly called Burma – who have relocated to Tulsa as refugees. 

Tresch said the team at Rising Village was initially unsure if they wanted to pivot to making face masks. 

“About a week after schools and our classes were canceled, we received two requests from people in the healthcare community asking if we could make a batch of face masks for them,” she said. “We weren’t sure if this was a direction we wanted to go. Then one of our instructors was at a local store in the fabric section and a doctor was buying interfacing to make his own mask since his hospital was running low. At that point we decided that there was a need out there we could fill.”

She notes that the masks are simply filling a gap for healthcare workers; they are not standard hospital masks, but they are four layers and include instructions on how best to use them so they will be effective. 

“There is a lot of controversy around cloth masks right now, but I see it as ‘making do’ during wartime,” she said. “Our supplies may not be perfect, but things are chaotic right now and we are throwing a small lifeline to these healthcare workers until help comes. We have tried to respect the requests of each hospital for what they want in a mask, and we are careful to sanitize when packaging them.”

She notes that many people don’t sew, and they were putting out pleas for seamstresses to help make masks. 

“Since our classes were canceled and the women would be at home, this seemed a perfect fit for the women in our program who have sewing machines,” she said. 

Since they started the mask initiative, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has put out guidelines recommending that those in the U.S. wear face masks when they are in public, making the Rising Village initiative even more important at this time. 

One of the biggest struggles with the initiative is logistics, Tresch said. Initially, due to social-distancing guidelines, team members would drop off kits on porches at the women’s homes or apartments. Eventually, they set up bins at the Rising Village Center so the women could pick up the kits and drop off the masks when they were completed. However, some of the women don’t have reliable transportation or have young children that they don’t want out in the public sphere, so deliveries are still taking place. 

The women use the WhatsApp messaging service to answer questions regarding sewing the masks, Tresch said. 

“Because we aren’t with them, we don’t have immediate quality control, so we’ve had to redo a few masks and not use others until everyone got the pattern down and knew how to make them well, which is hard,” Tresch said. “When I went to pick up masks today from one of the women who has been in our program from the beginning, she came to the window and we blew kisses at one another. I got in my car and cried. I miss the women and am so humbled by their generosity to continually meet this need day after day.”

There are nine women sewing on a regular basis. One of these, Abeer, sews eight or nine face masks each day, spending around two to three hours working. Originally from Jordan, she said she likes to help people and this is the perfect time for her to use her skills to help doctors and nurses who desperately need supplies during the pandemic. 

It’s women such as Abeer who are devoting their time to helping others whom they may never meet in person. It is a truly selfless act for women who have faced discrimination because of their religion or just animosity because they are immigrants, Tresch said. 

“But despite that, they are eager to be part of what we are all doing collectively to bring help and relief to our community healthcare workers,” she said. They don’t see themselves as distant from this, they are very much with us in this difficult time. It is a beautiful illustration of how refugees and immigrants truly make our communities better places to live.”

Of course, many organizations have popped up over the weeks and months to sew masks, but the women at Rising Village faced a unique set of circumstances even before the coronavirus upended their lives, like language barriers, hostility toward their way of life, and adapting to a new set of circumstances in the U.S. 

Tresch said the organization is desperate for financial donations — not only for the materials, but for the women’s work. Donations may be made through the Rising Village website.

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Kristi Eaton

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kristi Eaton |

Kristi Eaton is a freelance journalist and Tulsa Artist Fellow in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Visit her website at KristiEaton.com.