3/29/2012 Chris Karlesky

Students Launch Refugee Artisan Initiative

On May 12, Franklin & Marshall College students May Aung ’12, Judith Stapleton ’12 and Rukhshana Tuli ’12 will graduate and begin making the transition to post-college life. In the meantime, they are helping local residents make transitions of their own—to a new country.

  • Franklin & Marshall students May Aung '12, Judith Stapleton '12 and Rukhshana Tuli '12 launched Atma: The Refugee Artisan Initiative, a program designed to empower refugees in Lancaster through craft workshops. Here, Aung (left) and Stapleton (standing at left) share a laugh at a craft workshop. (Photo by Nodar Kipshidze '14)

Aung, Stapleton and Tuli recently launched Atma: The Refugee Artisan Initiative, a program designed to empower refugees in Lancaster through craft workshops led by F&M students. The students’ mission is to help refugee women gain a measure of financial independence through the production and sale of artisanal products on the F&M campus and in the community. The program is named “Atma” after the Sanskrit word meaning “self,” or “true self.”

Throughout this semester, the students have been running biweekly workshops to teach women how to make a variety of earrings, bracelets and necklaces. They designed the program for women because it is common for refugee women to stay at home and remain isolated from the community while their husbands work, the students said. The students are also helping the refugees improve their limited English skills.

“We’ve been working with three women from Nepal so far, and I love working with them one-on-one,” said Stapleton, a native of the U.K. who is an art major and Italian minor at F&M. “They come from such an interesting culture.”

The students hatched the idea for Atma in December 2011 during a trip to King of Prussia Mall in the Philadelphia suburbs. There they visited Ten Thousand Villages, a nonprofit organization that sells handmade crafts produced by artisans in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. With the popular fair-trade store serving as inspiration, they decided to create an artisan organization to benefit the growing refugee population in Lancaster.

Through previous contact with local refugees, Aung and Tuli realized that many refugee women had artisanal skills. Aung helped refugee families settle in Lancaster as part of F&M’s “Citizenship” course, a community-based learning seminar that undertakes an interdisciplinary examination of the concept and practice of citizenship. Tuli worked with Church World Service—one of the leading refugee resettlement agencies in Lancaster—through F&M’s Public Service Summer Internship (PSSI), a seven-week paid summer program at the College.

“I was fortunate to work with the refugee population through my PSSI internship, but much of my work was behind the scenes and I couldn't work closely with individual families to watch them grow, ” said Tuli, a biology major at F&M and native of Bangladesh. “With Atma, I'm able to watch women do something on their own and feel empowered. It's really gratifying to see that.”

  • Rukhshana Tuli ’12 (left), Judith Stapleton ’12 (center) and Rabin Pokhrel ’15 work at the Atma stand at First Friday in downtown Lancaster on March 9. Tuli, Stapleton and May Aung ’12 (not pictured) founded Atma, while Pokhrel and Arya Bhattari ’15 (not pictured) are translators in the initiative.

In addition to connecting F&M students to the local community, the project has enabled the students to develop business skills; they have submitted a business plan to the Franklin Innovation Challenge, a contest organized by the College’s Entrepreneurship Club to foster innovation among students.

The students are also learning about Nepali culture, and were recently invited to the home of one woman for tea.

“It’s exciting when you’ve made that connection, and you’re in someone’s home, drinking tea,” said Aung, an environmental studies major and art minor. “We’ve earned their trust and are getting to know them…It’s really cool that this project is student-driven. I can’t believe we made it happen.”

The students and refugee women of Atma will sell their artisan products at First Friday in downtown Lancaster on April 6. Students interested in participating in Atma can contact Aung, Stapleton or Tuli for more information.

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