The inside story of how editor/brand curator Leigh Kosloski (Austin, Texas) became inspired to ditch high fashion, redirecting her career to promoting good causes after visiting Open Arms Multicultural Refuge Coalition.
I first became acquainted with the Open Arms while working as a graphic designer for a purveyor of University of Texas related merchandise. I noticed one day, while on a weekly marketing tour of the large retail outpost, they were featuring apparel made from discarded t-shirts. It was my job then to create t-shirts and their print protocols. On a daily basis, I was surrounded by printer mishaps, sample designs that didn't make production and the like. There were literally piles of shirts everywhere and filling wastebaskets. I thought, "Well, I sure as could use a good office clean-up and how great would it be if I donated a few boxes of t-shirts to this company that gives back in my town and at an international level." However, I would never have imagined that visiting their operations would change my entire life.
I also thought they had a "neat" story and contacted an editor at a fashion-focused media platform and proposed making contact with Open Arms. I was given the "green light" to check it out on my own time with no promise of contract or payment. That was fine with me as a visit also supported my endeavor to give something charitably while making the company I worked with "look good," hence helping my abilities for advancement. My next step was to give send them an email. In it, I first introduced that I could bring by a donation of shirts on behalf of a company with which they had a established a retail agreement. I also asked if I could talk to the founder and perhaps some staff, as I might be able to secure some potential media placement. I was, indeed, welcomed with open arms in response to both of my requests.
One cloudy afternoon in the winter of 2012, I loaded up my car with a few boxes of shirts and headed on over to a church in downtown Austin. Although not completely and directly affiliated with the church, they hosted operations for a compassionate price that allowed operation costs to be lower than what could be found in commercial real estate. I climbed the stairs to an upper floor, entering a one-room operation. For it's lack in space, the room I entered had an immense amount of cultural diversity present. At various stations women from around the world worked to turn discarded t-shirts and jersey remnants into cute infinity scarves and skirts. The skills they employed were learned "on the job," but their spirited desire to survive and do so with a meaningful career came from deeper within each woman.
I learned about what jobs the woman performed and what products they were making, but more importantly I learned about their personal stories. I spoke to the women individually, guided by the company founder Leslie Beasley, who helped fill in gaps where language created a barrier. The stories I heard broke my heart, sickened me to the core in some instances but also inspired me. If these women could achieve what they have and survived the unthinkable, then certainly there was more that I could be doing to make a positive impact in the world.
"I can't imagine," were the words that continually ran through my mind as I listened to the stories of about a half dozen women from different countries. I'm not talking that they were just not from America, but the group as a whole was comprised of women all from cultures unlike their own. I cannot remember their names, but I remember the passion I felt as they were willing to share with me so much of themselves to give others hope. On employee, a beautiful, tall women told me about escaping through the Congo jungle from machine gun firing militants. While literally running for her life she gave birth against a tree. A stick was used to cut the umbilical cord, a removed shirt used to wrap the baby. She ran while bleeding and in pain, clutching her tiny infant to her heart, worrying they would not make it out of there with their lives. I heard stories of women losing entire families to war, about the horrendous conditions in refugee camps and the struggles of adjusting to life in western civilization. The fear, hesitation and subsequent elation that came with flicking on a light switch for the first time or the cold isolation that is leaving all you ever knew behind for another life were commonly relayed.
Barely making it to the privacy of my car afterwards I cried and cried. I thanked the universe for the gifts it has given me and also for the gift that was meeting a group of truly inspiring woman from around the world. Housed in that little room in a church smack dab in a Texas city was a collective of women from various countries, bringing with them various languages and cultures. What they all had in common is that they were strong, they were survivors. They were refugees and Open Arms was giving them REAL careers they could use to support their lives in the United States.
Open Arms did not give out donations or other charitable contributions at the time of my visit. What the company gave, and still does today, is wages for women at the greatest risk of not prospering as a relocated refugee. This included widows and mothers, who often find it extra difficult to adjust and support themselves and their families. Often though these women relocated alone, having in some cases lost their entire families. Others did not know the fates of loved ones or were plainly just oceans away from those they cared about. For these women, Open Arms gave them a sense of family and support in the United States. They provided them community resources, education in a trade and a place for women who faced trauma, rape, torture, disease, murder, starvation and all the ills one could list in the world, a place where they could be proud survivors.
Their proud smiles and the stories of which involved a special kind of strength to survive, let alone retell, changed my life forever. Every day I dedicate my efforts to activate compassion and mindfulness in others to those beautiful women. I am forever thankful for them welcoming me into their world with complete and utter open arms and open hearts.
Update: Since my visit several years ago Open Arms has undergone some change. The group has more recently offered home goods and has had partnerships with IKEA in Texas and other big names. Also, the group is now under the parentage of the Multicultural Refugee Coalition. The 501(c)3 nonprofit organization was founded in 2009 by two American women (Meg Erskine and Sarah Stranahan) with two Liberian refugees (Johnson Doe and Paul Tiah). The group aims to support refugees resettling in the beautiful and compassion filled city of Austin, Texas. In addition to Open Arms, the nonprofit also offers The New Leaf Refugee Agriculture Program. This unique program offers refugees from traditional farming cultures the opportunity to garden in their new community, gaining self sufficiency and a sense of community. The group is also unique in that it trains refugees to become interpreters within not only the MRC organization, but also within the City of Austin.
The prospective editorial that lead me to Open Arms did not make the cut for the aforementioned fashion platform, as they did not think the product suited their high-end reader. The story not making the cut disgusts me to the day, but the rejection of the editorial for what I deemed a "petty rationale" and my experience meeting the women of Open Arms changed me life forever. It was then that I knew I wanted to only be involved in the media promotion of brands with causes, a heart and a soul. Furthermore, I vowed to dedicating my life to sharing compelling stories on media platforms that were not short-sighted when it came to compassion.
I would also like to extend my thanks for the amazing women that is Leslie Beasley, founder of Open Arms and passionate humanitarian.
Photos: Multicultural Refugee Coalition
Story: Leigh Kosloski (firstname.lastname@example.org)