Originally posted on 12/9/09.

Last year I heard a radio interview with some Somali refugee women who had resettled in Springfield, Massachusetts, after years of wandering by foot from Somalia through refugee camps in different countries, through leaky illegal boat trips across the Mediterranean... horror after horror to come to this land of sanctuary. Although we don't buy coffee from Somalia, I have met with Somali refugees in southeastern Ethiopia and northern Kenya, and like many of you have been tremendously moved by the plight of these ordinary folks just trying to survive and support their families.

We contacted the women and met with them to learn more about their situation and try to figure out a way we could help, just like we do with the coffee farmers in each of the countries we work in.  The women had formed a support group, Walaalo Sisters, and they said their greatest need was an economic base that would recognize the women's need to raise their kids, the language and cultural barriers, and their absolute lack of resources.  Together with Yasmin, Nasra, Habibi and several of the women, we came up with the idea of a sewing collective, with an interesting twist.

Dean's Beans supplied Walaalo with four high quality sewing machines, instruction and a designer.  We then provided them with some of our jute and burlap bags that the green coffee comes to us in.  The bags often have logos from the coops we buy from and marks for organic and fair trade certification.  We designed a reusable grocery tote from the bags, and the women went to work!

They meet weekly to have sewing sessions that also serve as opportunities for the women to share their personal stories and struggles.  My wife Annette has participated in some of these meetings, using her wonderful facilitator skills from her organization, MotherWoman, to guide some of the deep and sensitive inquiries (and her sewing skills from working in a sail loft on Martha's Vineyard in her scurrilous, pre-Dean era!). Yasmin and Nasra have also received MotherWoman facilitation training and are using their skills in their own unique community of women.

After a lot of experimentation and practice, the women have created beautiful grocery totes, lined with muslin fabric.  They are strong, hold the right amount of groceries, are reusable and made from recycled coffee bags. And 100% of the proceeds go to the women so that they can support their families. Now the bags are ready in time to help you cart all of those holiday groceries around in style and with compassion.

Buying these useful bags is a small act with big consequences. Check them out here, and have a great holiday season!

Listen in as Nasra and Yasmin tell you the story themselves, compliments of 93.9 The River,  WRSI Progressive Radio.