When Bothina Matar first started at Gaia, an artisan collective working to empower refugee women, she intended to work there a few months before finding a new job. Matar — along with her husband, two children, father, and mother-in-law — had recently resettled in Dallas from Syria, and had been introduced to the organization by the International Rescue Committee. A former teacher, Matar was more comfortable in front of an English classroom than a sewing machine, but she accepted the position in order to be able to work alongside and encourage her mother-in-law, Huda.
Now, almost three years later, Matar is the artisan coordinator and trainer at Gaia. She helps teach new artisans, experiments with new products, and keep up with the day-to-day needs of the organization. She tells A Plus that she is no longer looking for another job.
“After I got to know all these beautiful people here and the help that they gave us and the support, I just fell in love with everything here,” Matar says.
Founded in 2009, Gaia — named for the Greek goddess of the Earth — started small: with one artisan, whom founder Paula Minnis had met through the IRC after volunteering to mentor refugees who had recently resettled in the Dallas area.
Minnis tells A Plus that she didn’t have much of an awareness of the refugee community in her community before meeting Catherin, who had fled conflict in Burma, and spending a couple hours a week helping her navigate her new home. During one vocabulary lesson, Minnis was trying to explain the verb “to sew” to Catherin by drawing a picture of a needle and thread. Catherin responded by getting up and retrieving a needle and thread from her sewing kit.
Minnis said at this moment, “the wheels started turning.” Catherin was working in a minimum wage position and, after paying for her family’s basic needs, had very little money left to go toward creating a new life for them. Minnis envisioned creating a program that would provide refugee women ongoing, meaningful employment at a living wage.
“Because of circumstances that were beyond her control, that she happened to have been born into Burma, that she happened to have been part of an ethnic minority, that she found herself in this situation … it didn’t seem fair to me,” Minnis says. “And I think that sense of wanting to restore that dignity that she didn’t have, to feel that confidence that she didn’t have before, to feel the welcome and to feel the knowledge that while you may not have been wanted there, you’re wanted here and we’re happy to have you. That’s really the driving force behind the founding of Gaia.”
Minnis brought Catherin a sewing machine, patterns, and fabrics, and together, they created Gaia’s first product: cloth napkins. Minnis used her experience in the fashion industry to bring Gaia’s products to market and the program grew organically from there. When Minnis had twins, they added bibs, booties, and diaper pouches to Gaia’s product line. When refugees who were skilled with beading interviewed with Gaia, they added bracelets, earrings, and necklaces. Currently, Gaia works with 10 different artisans from seven different countries.
“While our impact hasn’t been in the numbers and in dozens and dozens of women we’re employing, our impact has been in the difference we’ve made in each of their individual lives and their family’s lives,” Minnis says. “It’s been a privilege to witness the transformation of these women.”
Forat Aljiryawee tells A Plus that when she first came to the U.S. from Iraq, doing seemingly simple things such as going to the store were hard. She said she stayed home most of her first year in U.S., but, with some help from a friend, started working a Gaia a month ago. The chance for a better future for her children — one of whom tells her that he hopes he’ll be the president of the United States one day — is what gives her the strength to overcome any obstacle.
“They don’t want to flee their home,” Minnis says. “They don’t want to have to decide what items are we going to back in this one suitcase for their entire family. They don’t want to make those choices; we wouldn’t want to make those choices. Many of the families that we work with, they were just like us … and they had to make choices that are unfathomable for any of us.”
Minnis believes that for the refugee women Gaia works with, the greatest resource they have is themselves. Through Gaia, she hopes to empower those women to have the ability to tap into that resource.
“I always say that refugees are success stories waiting to happen,” Minnis says. “I think that refugees add a lot of value to our communities: their culture, the diversity that they bring and we’ve just really found that they’ve been a blessing to us. I feel like I’ve gotten much more out of my work with refugee women than they’ve probably gotten out of it.”