St. Louis is home to thousands of immigrants and refugees from around the world. Starting a new life and becoming self-sufficient here can be challenging for families. “Boss lady” Jennifer Owens, executive director at Forai (Friends Of Refugees And Immigrants), is working to make that transition a little easier for women in the city. Forai teaches immigrant and refugee women how to make jewelry and textiles, and then sells the pieces they make. The artisans work from their homes and earn money to support their families. Read on to learn more about what Jennifer does and why she does it.
What's your inspiration behind starting Forai? The real inspiration came after hosting some refugees in our home for a meal. In 2008, our church offered the opportunity to host meals for families who had recently arrived from refugee camps. We said ‘yes’ and two families came to our home for dinner. One of them was a single mom with her two school-age children. She spoke no English, had maybe a second-grade education level, and had lived in a refugee camp for 17 years. Her husband passed away in the camp, and here she was responsible for the kids on her own. I couldn't get her situation out of my head. How would it even be possible for her to find a job that could support her family of three? I kept thinking and praying, “Is there anything I can do to help?” Through all that, what came out is the idea of working with our hands, because that bridges the language barrier. When you’re working with your hands, it's helpful to speak English, but not necessary. Lots of women have handcrafting skills, so that is a starting point. So we went to more groups of refugees to ask them if they thought the opportunity to create products in their homes would be beneficial. If they didn’t think it would be helpful, there was no use in trying it. However, we found lots of interested people, and that’s where Forai started.
Who would you say Forai is for? First, Forai is for women from the refugee and immigrant community in St. Louis. That is who we're focused on bringing into our program. Many of them are at home because of health reasons or they have young kids, and they benefit from the dignity and empowerment of learning new things and being able to create additional income for their families. We also provide for those who want to do something that makes a difference in their community (and specifically the refugee community), through volunteer hours or donations or purchases. Over the recent years there's been more media attention showing how many people are displaced and a small picture of what life is like for them, so we’ve seen people asking what they can possibly do to help. Their purchases actually do make a difference in a life in their community. We also want to educate the broader community, rewrite the refugee narrative, and demystify some of the information out there about refugees - putting faces on the rhetoric so it's more positive and accurate.
What has been your proudest moment since you started Forai? Sometime last year, as I was interacting with one of the women who I've been mentoring personally and have known for 5 or 6 years, she said to me, "You're like the big sister I never had." She's from Bhutan, and lived in a refugee camp in Nepal for 16 years. We come from completely different backgrounds, but for her to view me in that way felt like a really precious moment. On more of the business side, as people reach out to us to sell our things, it makes it seem like people really like our products. That feels exciting, like it's really working.
What are your future goals for Forai? In the very immediate future, we’re working on setting up a permanent workshop space in South City that would allow us to consolidate all our supplies, finished products, and equipment. We could do drop-in classes for women there as well. We visit women in their homes, but this would allow them to come to the workshop if they ran into a problem with something they were making. We could offer classes and additional training beyond just the products we're making, as well as classes for the community to help fund what we're doing. Further in the future, we’d like to have our own retail space, a space where people could come buy our full line of products in person. All those things would lead to training and employing more refugee and immigrant women. They could take on positions beyond making and could gain more skills that could lead to other jobs in the future.
What piece of advice would you give to other women trying their entrepreneurial success? Another small business owner once told me that you need to be sure of what your vision is, and don't let anyone talk you out of it. We need flexibility and to be willing to listen and change, but everyone has their own ideas. So if you really think this is what you should be doing, stick with it.
What's the biggest challenge in starting a non-profit organization? One of the biggest challenges is having enough manpower, because as a non-profit, we rely on volunteers to do a lot. We can't just go hire a bunch of people. Volunteers are volunteers, and you want to respect their time and make them feel appreciated. You need them to do a lot for you, but they have lives and jobs; volunteerism isn't their full time job. So having enough staff is difficult.
What is the best thing about living in St. Louis? I love all the fun things you can do that don't cost much or any money. I also love the diversity of our city. My neighborhood is diverse, and I’m part of a faith community that is committed to racial reconciliation. While that commitment doesn't reflect all of St. Louis, I really appreciate being part of that community. It’s helped me see my need to learn more and be in relationship with people who are different than me, and I can't imagine that not being a part of my life.
Why do you call St. Louis home, and what are some of your favorite activities here? It's the longest place I've lived my whole life, so that’s part of why it feels like home. My favorite activity is going to the Botanical Gardens. I homeschooled most of my kids for awhile so we spent a lot of time at the Gardens. I love Tower Grove Park too… really anywhere there are trees and flowers!
We love the work that Jennifer is doing through Forai to help immigrant and refugee women in our city. Visit Forai's website to see the jewelry, accessories, and textiles available - all handcrafted by women in St. Louis. On the site you can also find a calendar of upcoming festivals, and events, as well as a list of retail partners where you can find Forai products.