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South Salt Lake » Fifteen-year-old Shelly Winstar sits on the floor, leaning back against a strap that anchors her to the wall. Her fingers loop fine burgundy, white and navy threads for hours to create a purse.
But, for Winstar, it's about more than just the bag. She weaves to "keep culture."
Winstar is one of about a dozen Karen (pronounced ka-REN) women from Burma who are part of a pilot project aimed at helping these refugees supplement their incomes and preserve their traditional craft: back-strap weaving. The women meet each Saturday at the Pioneer Craft House in South Salt Lake to weave, talk and laugh together.
"They don't have a country any more," says Ze Min Xiao, Salt Lake County's refugee-services liaison. "Their fear is, once they become integrated into the community, they might lose their culture and their traditions."
Karens are an ethnic minority in Burma who have fought for independence and faced persecution for decades. At the hands of the Burmese military, many Karens have been killed, raped and expelled from their homes.
About 150,000 Burmese refugees, most of them Karens, lived in Thai camps in 2008, according to the State Department. Many of them have been there for up to two decades.
While visiting one those camps, Yda Smith, an occupational-therapy professor at the University of Utah, conceived of the South Salt Lake weaving project. She was surprised by the level of commerce in the camp, with many of the refugees operating stores, and was especially interested in a weaving collective run by a group of women.
Smith wondered if the Karen refugees she worked with through University Neighborhood Partners knew how to weave.
"If they did, I was determined to find a way to help them do that again," Smith recalls. "For occupational therapists, helping people engage in activities that are meaningful to them is a central piece of what we do."
The Karen women in Utah did weave. But helping them to practice their craft proved to be a tangled ball of yarn -- one that Smith and others worked to unravel, one knot at a time.
The group set up shop at the Pioneer Craft House, a historic school campus owned by South Salt Lake and Salt Lake County. A volunteer installed a handrail, low to the floor, to which the weavers could anchor their back straps. (Accustomed to tying onto the bamboo walls of their homes, the women found few places to anchor to inside their Western apartments.)
A woodworking instructor at the craft house carved new weaving sticks to replace the ones left in Thailand because the refugees were required to pack light. Smith searched for the fine, brightly colored thread the women use. She imported some from Burma but later learned the women prefer Thai thread for its quality. She still is working to find something similar domestically to avoid the high shipping costs.
Start-up expenses have been covered by a $5,000 grant from the United Way of Salt Lake Women's Philanthropic Network, but Smith hopes the project turns into a self-sufficient enterprise, a moneymaker even. The women, who plan to form a nonprofit Karen Women's Organization of Utah, sell their products at the Pioneer Craft House's farmers market on Tuesdays.
"One of the critical things is finding out what is marketable in Utah," Xiao says. "They were weaving traditional clothing but we're not sure whether that is as marketable as other items."
The women, many of whom wear their own embroidered tunics and multicolored skirts, are weaving purses, wallets and bookmarks instead. Smith hopes to develop high-end niche products such as gift bags for wine bottles.
This month, Salt Lake County launched a "Refugee Pathways to Self-Sufficiency" program to help the newcomers, such as the Karen women, become entrepreneurs. The program offers micro-loans and business training.
"We're hoping to use the Pioneer Craft House as an incubator for those types of projects," says Xiao, who is coordinating entrepreneurial classes for the Karen women.
For now, the Karen women are assembling symbols of their homeland inside their weaving room. The flag of Karen State hangs on the wall. They speak to one another in the Karen language. And they teach their teenage daughters, like Winstar, to weave.
Reader's note: This story has been corrected to provide the correct title for the philanthropic network
What » The Karen women sell their products at the Pioneer Craft House's farmers market.
When » Tuesdays, 5 to 8 p.m.
Where » Pioneer Craft House, 3271 S. 500 East, South Salt Lake.