Business opens arms, hearts to refugees with American dreams

AUSTIN, TX (RNN) - Odile Moukssi is just a few months into her American dream. The 54-year-old came to the U.S. with her three daughters in January 2010 after war forced her from her home in the Congo.

Unable to find a job, she relied on government assistance to get by until an upstart business called the Open Arms Shop gave her an opportunity to build a life of her own in the new country she would call home.

"The center for refugees that took her in called her and told her that Open Arms was looking for people, and she had been complaining about not finds any jobs," said Alexi Maher, translating for Moukssi, who speaks French. "She was very pleased. It was the only help she could get."

Selling bananas was her trade in the Congo. She now makes and sells scarves, pillow shams and most importantly, hope - the hope that she and refugees like her can build a better life half a world away from the war-torn countries they left.

Every year tens of thousands of people leave or are driven from their home countries and land on U.S. shores in hope of starting a new dream and a new life.

In 2009, the most recent year with available statistics, nearly 75,000 people were admitted to the United States as refugees, meaning they are unable or unwilling to return to their home country because of persecution or well-founded fear of persecution.

While physical safety becomes an automatic comfort of life in America, refugees often face a tough road in a new land, sometimes unable to speak the language and lacking the job skills to secure employment in an American economy.

A trip to Africa opened Austin, TX, resident Leslie Beasley's eyes to the plight of refugees.

With a group of volunteers, Beasley started the Open Arms Shop, a company that creates scarves, pillows and other goods out of recycled T-shirts and made entirely by refugee women like Moukssi.

"I went to the agency in Austin that is the receiving agency for refugees here. I asked the director, 'I'm really compelled by this demographic of people, and I'd like to see if I can do something. What is your biggest need and who is most vulnerable?'" Beasley said.

"She said, 'If you want me to answer honestly, they need jobs with sustainable wages so that they can take care of their families. They need jobs that aren't minimum wage.'"

The Open Arms Shop opened in October 2010 and pays the four refugee women who work there a living wage of $11 an hour, well over the minimum wage of $7.25. The definition of a "living wage" varies from town to town, depending on the area's cost of living.

For the people at Open Arms, it's less about selling a product and more about investing in people.

"We're trying to give them sustainability and dignity," said Trina Barlow, Open Arms marketing director and one of the volunteers who has committed a year of her time to help get the business off the ground. "When they get here, they're thrilled to be safe, but to work as a maid, you're not going to make any money. It's really hard."

Opens Arms also offers English as a Second Language classes as-needed during the work day and family-friendly hours.

"We thought, 'How can we do business differently?'" Beasley said. "Our thought was, 'Let's have family-friendly hours, 8:15-3:15. You can get home and cook dinner for your family and be there for your children.'"

As the business grows, they plan to offer childcare to employees with pre-school aged children.

All the while, Beasley and her group of volunteers have committed to not taking a salary for the first year.

"Our mission is to have an innovative business that is doing business differently, that is paying living wages, sustainable wages so people can support themselves," she said. "We want to be an example to the business community to say, 'Businesses can help solve this too. It doesn't have to all be charities and non-profits.'"

They hope to grow to eight employees by the end of 2011 and eventually expand beyond the borders of Austin.

"Long term, we really have this vision of having a warehouse, lots of people employed. A lot of hard work coupled with a lot of laughter and a space that is kind of a healing space for everybody," Beasley said. "Ultimately, we'd like to have offices in cities around the country where there are dense refugee populations."

It's a vision Moukssi is fully behind. She says she's thankful for the opportunity she's been given and hopes one day, many of her refugee friends will be able to join her at Open Arms.

"She knows a lot of refugees in Austin who have no jobs and she feels bad for them," Maher translated. "She prays every day for Open Arms to succeed."

Open Arms products are carried at a number of Austin-area boutiques and online at

"[When you buy a product] you've bought something that's going to save someone's life here. Something that allows them to buy their own food here, allows them to buy their own clothes," Barlow said. "When you hear their stories, you really realize, 'This is why I'm doing what I'm doing - to give them a chance at the American dream.'"

The work of Beasley and her group of volunteers has put that dream within arm's reach for Moukssi and the other employees at Open Arms.

"She says she would not go back to her country even if she could," Maher said.

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