The Multicultural Refugee Coalition provides employment opportunities for refugee women to support their families in Central Texas.

By Jim Tuttle

Education, Video, Work
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Click the “play” button on the image above to watch a short film about two refugee women who are employed through MRC.

Maria Vung and Krishna Bista came to Central Texas with their families after being forced to flee their home countries, but faced a host of new challenges once they resettled. Like many refugees who don’t speak English or have an established support network in their new community, Vung and Bista struggled to find jobs to support their families, and so did their husbands.

Both women now work alongside other refugees, thanks to two social enterprises operated by the Multicultural Refugee Coalition (MRC). The organization was co-founded by Meg Erskine, who became acquainted with Austin’s refugee community after volunteering to teach English language classes to newly resettled refugees in 2009.

“Texas, historically, has been one of the largest resettlement destinations for refugees, and so we do have a lot of refugees resettled to the Austin area,” Erskine said. “And our work at MRC is really focused on folks after they’ve been resettled.”

Originally established as a refugee community center offering a variety of resources, it has since evolved to primarily provide employment opportunities through its Open Arms Studio and New Leaf Agriculture enterprises. The organization is committed to paying their workers a fair and dignified wage, which they define as “significantly above minimum wage and industry standards.”

Sam Then, a Burmese refugee, works at Open Arms Studio making quilts out of recycled T-shirts for a company that partnered with the Multicultural Refugee Coalition in 2019. The partnership has allowed the studio to hire more women, essentially quadrupling in size. Erskine said most of the women are originally from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burma.

“I see myself as a facilitator, really just making sure that [refugees] have the lead to take it where it is that they are going,” Erskine said. “We are a support along the way to assure that this is stable, with sustainable wages and all those building blocks around it. But they are the reason we do the work that we’re doing.”

Vung has worked for four years at Open Arms Studio, a commercial textile manufacturer that was donated to MRC in 2014, and has since quadrupled its staff. She first learned how to sew in her home country, Burma, and found career advancement at Open Arms, rising from her starting position as a seamstress to her current role, assistant studio and production manager.

Maria Vung was recently promoted to a management role at the textile studio. She said her four children are her greatest inspiration, and that eventually she hopes to start her own business and help more refugee women like herself.

Bista was born in Bhutan and lived in Nepal as a refugee before emigrating to the U.S. 11 years ago. She remained unemployed until three years ago, when MRC brought her on board as a team member at New Leaf Agriculture, which is a certified organic farm growing a variety of crops for local businesses, schools, and a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

Bista has a big family — including her husband, their five children, and four grandchildren — and they all live together in the same home. She said working at the farm is a good fit because she grew up farming, and it allows her to help support her family with added income and fresh organic produce.

Erskine said the farm is a much larger extension of a community garden project that started back in the organization’s early days — a response to many refugees expressing a desire to “get their hands in the dirt” and grow food, as they had in their home countries. New Leaf currently employs six refugees full-time.

Working here on the farm has impacted really well on me and my family,” Bista said. “Encouragement and opportunity empower us not to be discouraged and depressed. Coming here and having an opportunity to work with co-workers, just living, laughing and sharing the peace — it really gives us strength.”

A refugee team member washes freshly harvested white radishes at New Leaf Agriculture. The farm, which recently received USDA Organic Certification, grows a variety of crops for local businesses, schools, and a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that has 100 members.