Local entrepreneur empowers refugee women through employment opportunities
For seven years, Ypsilanti resident Sultan was an interpreter for American troops deployed in Afghanistan. Wearing an American uniform and carrying a rifle, Sultan was away from his home in north Afghanistan for extended periods of time, traveling the country with American combat soldiers to translate and help train local forces and often being subjected to hostile ambushes on the road.
“The reason that I really wanted to work for U.S. troops and our government’s army to fight against the Taliban was because they were killing our people … they’d go to schools to fire on kids. They killed my cousins,” Sultan, who asked to be identified by only first name due to safety concerns, said, adding that his long absences were difficult for his wife, Zahra. “If I get the chance, I would go and work for them again.”
After getting wounded in a firefight, and as the Taliban began targeting local interpreters for assassination, Zahra and Sultan chose to accept an offer from his employer to resettle in the United States as refugees to protect their three sons.
“They consider interpreters as spies; that’s why they kill us,” Sultan said.
In April 2015, the family arrived in Michigan and was resettled in Ypsilanti by Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County. While Sultan was able to find full-time work at a local cleaning company and attend classes at Washtenaw Community College, a language barrier and the need to care for their children — the oldest is in first grade — made it difficult for Zahra to find her own employment.
But while Zahra struggled to find a job, another local community member was unwittingly creating one. One year before the family’s arrival to the United States, Ann Arbor resident Brea Albulov had begun sewing baby slings for her children after finding the commercial options unsatisfying. When acquaintances began asking if they could buy her slings, Albulov realized she could start a business and founded Hope Carried in February 2015.
As orders mounted in the fall of 2015, Albulov was not only in need of helping hands, but was also increasingly unsettled by the unfolding Syrian refugee crisis. While listening to an NPR interview of an Afghan humanitarian activist who was struggling to find work after fleeing to the United States as an asylee, Albulov saw an opportunity to empower displaced individuals.
“While giving money is always helpful because people need resources, providing a job can change a poverty cycle,” Albulov said. “There’s a whole subcategory of people who want to work but can’t.”
After contacting Jewish Family Services and Freedom House of Detroit — both of which resettle refugees in Southeast Michigan — Albulov began hiring refugee women as contractors to produce her baby slings, including Zahra.
Albulov handles orders through a website and packages and ships orders from her home, dropping off fabric and picking up completed slings once or twice a week from each woman’s home. She said this has allowed them to secure paid employment despite linguistic and cultural barriers, while also still being able to care for their young children at home.
Hope Carried currently employs five refugee seamstresses. Including Zahra, three are from Afghanistan, one is from Iraq and one is from Africa. Albulov said she intends to expand her hiring to all women who lack economic empowerment for varying reasons.
Speaking for Zahra, who is not fully proficient in English, Sultan said Hope Carried has helped his wife adjust to their new life.
“It was hard for us, especially for my wife,” Sultan said. “(Hope Carried) is really helping me and the whole family … as long as (Zahra) is busy, I’m happy.”
Other refugees employed at Hope Carried have similar stories.
Arriving in Michigan six months ago after fleeing Kabul in 2013 because her family was threatened for working in the local media, Zobaida said her job has allowed her to support her family in a way that wasn’t possible in Afghanistan. She requested to only be identified by her first name due to safety concerns.
“Before I didn’t have any jobs … my first job was to work with Brea,” Zobaida said. “It’s really hard for us. I have to work and help my husband to pay back our loans.”
The company has shipped more than 1,400 orders in the past year, with most customers coming through referrals. Albulov said she is preparing to launch a Kickstarter campaign to hire additional workers and purchase fabric in wholesale.
She noted that the current political climate surrounding backlash against refugee arrivals to the United States has added a sense of importance to her company’s mission, adding that she would continue hiring refugee women regardless of any potential backlash against her company. Rhetoric used in President-elect Donald Trump's campaign has caused ongoing uncertainty and fear in the resettled refugee and advocacy community, especially over the past few weeks. For his first 100 days, Trump has prioritized extreme vetting for those from "terror-prone" countries. Which countries those would include has not been fully specified.
“There was a period where I didn’t intentionally promote the fact that (my workers) were refugees,” Albulov said. “But with such backlash, it actually motivated me more to be really specific about who we’re intentionally empowering, because I think that when people talk so loud about not welcoming them, there needs to be a voice that’s shouting equally about welcoming them.”
Though they acknowledged the challenges they’ve faced in adjusting to their new home in Michigan, both refugee families expressed an upbeat and optimistic outlook toward their futures.
“I want to improve my English, and also I want my daughter to have a bright future,” Zobaida said.
“It’s hard for us — we’ve got to work every single day to pay our bills … but these are money for me,” Sultan said, pointing at his toddler-aged children, who were running around Albulov’s living room. “My kids.”
This article has been corrected with the correct name of one of the refugees.