A social business in Oregon, Portland seeks to address refugee resettlement concerns.
by Portia Ladrido
The refugee crisis has exposed most of the humanities’ failings as a species. Families are torn, dignities are compromised, and hope often becomes futile. Once people flee their homes and seek refuge in a safer, more stable place, they are unintentionally forced into circumstances — a new house, a new country, a new community — that they may not necessarily want to be accustomed to.
Of the 60 million that are currently displaced, over 20 million are registered as refugees. Sometimes, they stay for years in camps before they are able to find a place they can finally call home. Other times, they find a home in a completely different state, with people who look and speak differently than they do.
There are various resettlement areas that refugees are welcomed into — from Europe to the Americas. And in 2017, the city of Oregon was selected as one of the new refugee resettlement locations in Portland, USA. Because of this, Salem Alliance Church, a religious organisation in the city, started a social business that could further help the refugees in their community.
Sparrow Furniture, an enterprise in Salem, Oregon that sells repurposed furniture, lighting, and decor, came to life.
“We wanted to do all we could to ensure that refugees arriving in our community were well supported and provided opportunities to develop their language, work, and to adjust into their new home,” said Luke Glaze, founder of Sparrow.
Glaze shared that the core team consists of the church leadership, an entrepreneurial manager, and a professional woodworker. The enterprise also makes use of community volunteers that could provide one-on-one training and mentoring for their employees.
What the enterprise aims to do is hire refugees who are new in their community so they can be employed right away. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), when they developed the ATM cash programme for Syrian refugees, the beneficiaries said that they felt more self-sufficient, as they were in charge with their own money. Same can be said when they are immediately employed, the refugees gain a sense of confidence and dignity because they feel empowered and useful.
In Oregon, Glaze said that refugees would generally be hired for only three to six months. “They are pushed to find employment fast and thus generally find part-time jobs that require no use of English and often odd hours that delay the refugees’ ability to integrate well within their new society,” he explained.
With Sparrow Furniture, Glaze said the refugees are given the support to find employment fast while also working in an environment where they can continue to learn English, develop soft skills, and work with people within the organisation and the community that can help them understand, appreciate, and connect with American culture and values.
In a video created by Sparrow Furniture, they introduced Jason Fahlman, the owner of Fahlman Furniture, a furniture business in Oregon. He sits as part of the advisory board of Sparrow Furniture to help the enterprise achieve their goals.
“A lot of people view refugees as negative but I think most people that I’ve met have been really great people. Just people like everyone else,” he said in the video. “It’s something that transcends language. The idea is to have somebody with the projects or learn more advanced woodworking.”
People like Fahlman will be assisting more refugees as the enterprise grows, but like any other businesses, it is not without its challenges. Glaze mentioned that the biggest challenge has been balancing what he calls “the double bottom lines.”
“We focus on a sustainable business model that requires us to succeed as a business and also we have a focus on the social impact on our employees,” he said. “Sometimes these two goals can work together well and at times they can compete for the focus.”
At the moment, Sparrow Furniture offers refinishing and repairing of donated furniture, as well as small lifestyle products that are geared towards online sales. They have also taken in larger custom woodworking orders.
As it just recently launched, Glaze said that their aim, for now, is to grow to around 20 refugee employees who can cycle every 12 to 24 months. “This will allow us to have a significant impact on the total refugee population in our city and provide this needed gap employment for many refugees,” he said.
Portia Ladrido is a multimedia journalist specialising in social justice, culture, and the arts. She is a human rights journalism fellow at the Philippine Human Rights Information Center and the Metro Manila hub coordinator of the Solutions Journalism Network. She currently writes speeches for the Philippines’ first female socialist senator. Previously, she worked as an editor and writer at CNN Philippines.