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Ming-Ming, Heidi, and Courtney (Image: Richard Schmitz)
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Seattle nonprofit creates a welcoming global community by investing in refugee women

Once in a while, there is a person who stands out from the crowd. Someone who by their own perseverance and dedication makes the world a little brighter.

I recently met someone like this, Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman. She is the founder of a small non-profit since 2017 called Refugee Artisan Initiative (RAI), located in the Lake City area of Seattle.

The storefront is simple and nondescript, in fact, as I walked up the street I almost passed by it. But the work being done inside is anything but mundane.

As I pushed the door open, Tung-Edelman came over to warmly greet me.. While she's now both the RAI founder and a pharmacist, she didn't always have these titles. Tung-Edelman came to the United States 33 years ago as an immigrant from Taiwan. She worked hard for an education and began a meaningful career, but she desired to do more to help other immigrant women, like herself, become self-sufficient and financially independent. In short, she wanted to give back.

Growing up in Taiwan, she watched her grandmother sew all their clothing and witnessed firsthand the skill and talent of this universal trade. Today, she works with artisan women who have relocated here in the Pacific Northwest from all points around the globe. The Initiative currently employs eight women from several different countries; Vietnam, Bali, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and Myanmar. All fleeing political unrest and war, all searching for a better way of life, and all possessing one common language; the skill of sewing.

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RAI’s mission is to partner with these women fostering, “an inclusive, prosperous transition to the U.S. through artisan skills training in small batch manufacturing.”

Shopping RAI's Specialty Products

Inside the main room at RAI, sewing machines line one wall while on the other hangs a large whiteboard with each woman's name, picture, and an inventory of jobs completed. Currently, they are working on a project which picked right up on a social media sensation during the Inauguration. You guess it! They are making Bernie Big & Cozy (En)viral Mittens. These are fleece-lined and handknit from old, up-cycled sweaters, fashioned after the attire of the popular icon himself, Bernie Sanders, on that cold January day.

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Tung-Edelman handed me a pair, as she explained that for every mitten set sold a pair is donated to someone experiencing homelessness in the Seattle area. This is just one more way RAI is changing lives - and for the better.

We walked into a back room where shelves of fabric and fleece-lined the perimeters from floor to ceiling. Every row of this fabric came to RAI donated from the Amazon returns program, where sheets and blankets which can not be re-sold are gifted and end up here waiting to be repurposed into something new and beautiful.

Just like another project of RAI’s. They are sewing much of the extra fleece into animal beds! These beds in turn will soon be given to animal shelters in the area. The concept is for every animal adopted to go to their forever home with a brand new bed. Certainly a win/win for everyone. A project like this keeps the discarded fleece out of the landfills, the animal shelters receive invaluable support along with beautifully crafted beds and pets become adopted.

Another win for the community happened at the start of the pandemic. Tung-Edelman wasted no time in identifying a problem with the PPE supply chain, and then she stepped in to do something about it. Under her leadership, RAI began sewing PPE ultimately providing over 10,000 masks to local health care workers and hospitals. “We want to be part of the solution”, she said as she turned and took down a framed document from the wall. Inside is a letter from the Governor honoring her contribution to all the citizens of WA state. An acknowledgment she is most proud to share and display.

In addition to face masks, the women of RAI added in making face shields and most recently sustainable medical scrubs. All of RAI’s products are available through their website. After witnessing the work they do, my shopping cart is becoming quite full but what I like best is that 100% of the profits go back to helping the artisans make a living wage.

Putting Their Money Where Their Mouth Is

Beyond providing skill training for immigrant women, RAI continues to assist them in building their futures. They help them obtain business licenses so they may step out on their own as independent contractors and entrepreneurs, furthering their journey to self-sufficiency. Some women seek an education and with consistent paying work put themselves through school to become accountants, bookkeepers, and businesswomen in the community.

Tung-Edelman’s vision of a "welcoming global community” begins in this simple office building, but she and RAI have a far-reaching impact on the world around them. They are creating a better one.

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