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Refugee Bhutan women find joy, profit in spinning fiber

Bhutan Refugee women gather weekly to spin wool

A group of refugee women, principally from Bhutan, gather on Tuesdays at Embrace United Methodist Church to spin locally donated alpaca, llama, and sheep wool using Bhutanese charkas and sell at Fiber Frenzy in Berea. The women seek to take part i
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A group of refugee women, principally from Bhutan, gather on Tuesdays at Embrace United Methodist Church to spin locally donated alpaca, llama, and sheep wool using Bhutanese charkas and sell at Fiber Frenzy in Berea. The women seek to take part i

It’s Tuesday morning in the basement of Embrace Church on North Limestone, and a group of seven Bhutanese women is busy spinning.

Some of their fiber is alpaca, some is wool from the Woolery in Frankfort.

Most of the women sit on the floor. Several are barefoot. They chatter with each other and sing songs, including a Nepali version of This Is The Day the Lord Has Made.

At the end of the spinning session, they have a snack — in this case, a kind of stringlike Bhutanese doughnut — and one of the women gifts everyone an orange.

The women have each spent years — in one case, 20 years — in Nepalese refugee camps. Ethnic Nepalis had to flee Bhutan beginning in the late 1980s because of Bhutan’s “one nation, one people” policy. Nepal began to settle the refugees in other countries beginning in 2007.

The United States took more than 80,000 of the approximately 95,000 ethnic Nepali refugees from Bhutan.

“They’re very good at spinning because it’s something they did at the refugee camp,” said Luella Pavey, a job developer with Kentucky Refugee Ministries who organizes the weekly sessions that includes 11 women.

Kentucky Refugee Ministries has been re-settling Bhutanese refugees in Lexington for seven years.

When they first arrived in Lexington, they were quizzed about potential job skills by Pavey at Kentucky Refugee Ministries. It took Pavey a while to ferret out the information that they were skilled spinners. The women had done the work while in refugee camps, but it was for companionship and a bit of pocket money to buy items such as extra food, said Geeta Dhital, who was translating for the refugees.

Sometimes that pocket money amount was as little as the equivalent of one United States dollar, Dhital said.

Robyn Wade of Lexington’s Rebelle knitting and crafts supply store began working with the group in September, 2014. Wade instructed, helped with fiber selection, dyed fibers and even provided spinning wheels before the Bhutanese women got more traditional charka wheels to use.

The spinning process requires fibers to be thoroughly combed out, using a tool that looks like two giant dog brushes. The straightened fibers are then fed onto the already-started string of yarn on the charka, where imperfections are picked off by hand.

Over the last two years the spinning women have become solid friends. The group has a running joke about the Jesus picture on the wall that one day fell on group member Shiva Adhikari, leaving her with a bump.

The group just received a $2,000 neighborhood grant that will help the women expand their spinning equipment inventory and be able to process more yarn. Their products are sold by Fiber Fancy in Berea and Brown Dog Trading in Lexington’s Stonewall Center.

Not only is the group both a bonding opportunity and a business, Pavey said that it is a job development tool, too. “They can share with others in their group what it’s like to get a job, to keep a job.”

Recently group member Dhan Mayu Mongar got a part-time job at Krispy Kreme.

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman

If you go

Passport To Flavor: a benefit for Kentucky Refugee Ministries

What: Featuring cuisine made by refugee cooks from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burundi, Cuba and Syria

Where: Manchester Music Hall

When: 6-11 p.m., June 24

Cost: $30 adults 13 and up, $15 children 6-12

More information and to purchase tickets: Passporttoflavor.brownpapertickets.com. Or by phone at Kentucky Refugee Ministries: 859-226-5661

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