July 2014

Refugee and Immigrant Women in the International District: Making Their Way


Nkasi Sinandile


Since the 1970s, Albuquerque’s International District has been a destination for refugees, immigrants and their families, first from Asia and then from Africa, Latin America and other countries around the world. Women and children constitute a significant percentage of these immigrants.


Refugees and immigrants face a wide range of challenges, both upon arrival and in the months and years after they settle in New Mexico. Many arrive with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. The majority do not speak English, and many are illiterate in their native languages. They must work hard to learn a new language quickly, navigate a complex foreign culture and find a job to support themselves and their families. Many also are committed to sending money to other family members still in refugee camps.


Initially, both the U.S. State Department and nonprofit agencies provide resettlement funds, but these typically cover expenses for only three to five months, most often not enough time for them to learn the language, secure employment and access all the services they need. Finding employment is particularly difficult because of the language barrier, employment inexperience and/or lack of education. Many women, who have lost their spouses, migrate with their children and have the responsibility of raising young ones at home, which makes working particularly difficult.


It’s important to know that immigrants and especially refugees often have experienced and witnessed violence, war and destruction. They have seen loved ones murdered, and many have languished in refugee camps for years. These experiences and the culture shock of a new country demand a wide range of physical- and mental-health services that are hard to access.


Access to health care, after immigrants arrive, is a particular challenge. If they are lucky enough to find a job, most are low-wage positions that do not provide health insurance. Refugees and immigrants typically do not have the money to hire a professionally trained doctor. If they are lucky enough to find a physician, it can be hard for doctors to diagnose them because of the communication barrier. Even after being diagnosed and prescribed a given drug, immigrants and refugees can find it hard to follow instructions in a foreign language. Albuquerque does have health clinics that are free to those who cannot afford a doctor, but waiting times and transportation to and from these clinics are often barriers to getting the services immigrants need.


Finally, immigrants experience both subtle and blatant forms of racism after they arrive. Despite New Mexico’s own cultural diversity, immigrants commonly report experiencing hostility, mistrust, racial slurs and even violence, simply because they are different.


For all of the above reasons, in 2009 a group of women from Africa and Asia—who themselves had made the complex journey of migration—formed New Mexico Women’s Global Pathways. NMWGP, a program of the Immigrant and Refugee Resource Village of Albuquerque, is a grassroots, microenterprise program that teaches women basic craft skills to earn income, provides English-as-a-second-language (ESL) tutoring, and teaches life skills. Most of the women who come to NMWGP are from Ethiopia, Somalia, Congo, Burundi, Bhutan, South Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan. There are also a few low- or no-income artisans from the United States. The women learn to craft traditionally inspired garments and accessories that they sell at local markets. When women learn or build upon their traditional skills and find venues to sell their crafts, they are able to place healthy and adequate food on their families’ tables. This has a positive impact on their self-esteem, as well as the quality of their families’ lives.


NMWGP is run out of a room provided by Peanut Butter & Jelly (PB&J) Family Services at its Southeast Heights location, right in the middle of the International District. Every Monday and Wednesday, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., the sounds of sewing machines, women learning English and children playing are heard. Children play inside this one room and in the adjacent playground because there are currently no funds to pay a childcare worker. At this point, they still do not have their own shop to display and sell the bags, pillows, garments, jewelry and other crafts they create, but this is their goal.


NMWGP artisans also make tote bags from recycled rice bags and sell them for between $10 and $25. In 2012, after three months of training in sewing, the artisans held their first sold-out fashion show/sales event. Currently, the artisans retain 100 percent of the proceeds from products they sell. It is expected that, after they receive ongoing training in business, they will be able to give 30 percent back to the organization.


NMWGP also works with and alongside other local organizations, families, ethnic leaders, and resettling agencies, including the New Mexico Asian Family Center, Read to Excel and Albuquerque Academy’s POWER (Promotion of Women’s Education and Rights). NMWGP is grateful for seed money that was provided by the Self-Development Program of the USA Presbyterian Church, La Mesa Presbyterian Church, the Office of African American Affairs, the New Mexico Women’s Foundation, and Bernalillo County. These funds enabled them to buy ethnic fabrics and materials. Since then, sources of funding have become scarce and program founders, who also volunteer their time, are utilizing personal funds to maintain they work. They know this is unsustainable, so they also work hard with fundraising activities.


NMWGP is absolutely dedicated to providing vulnerable children and their families a chance to build dignified lives, self-worth and, above all, livelihoods to transform themselves and their communities.



Nkazi Sinandile co-founded New Mexico Women’s Global Pathways, which is located at 209 San Pablo SE, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87108.





Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Related Articles