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Louisville Beaded Treasures Project Gives Refugee Women Skills, Confidence

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J. Tyler Franklin
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In a conference room in the basement of Highland Baptist Church, several women gathered around a large table picking through containers of colorful beads.

Beaded Treasures Project founder Surekha Kulknari buzzed around the table offering advice, encouragement and wire clippers.

“So today, you can do whatever you like," Kulkarni said to the group. "If you want to make a necklace, if you want to make a bracelet, earrings, I’ve got everything and we can just get started. So what would you like to make?"

The women making jewelry came to Louisville from Congo, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, and they were all learning English, too. A small table nearby displayed the women’s creations: glittery earrings, bright necklaces made of fat chunky beads, thin delicate bracelets in all colors of the rainbow.

This was the last class in a six-week Beaded Treasures training course. The project's participants learned basic jewelry-making skills, along with financial literacy and business skills.

After they graduate, they can buy supplies on credit at low cost — Kulkarni said “pennies on the dollar” — to start their own jewelry making business.

Venita Varadraja, who came to Louisville from Sri Lanka, said she likes making jewelry, but her passion is really beaded handbags.

“I make in every color because I have two daughters, so I make for them," Varadraja said.

Zarina Mansour, also from Sri Lanka, wore a long black dress with sparkly embroidery that she sewed herself.

“I like these really beautiful, and women’s, things," Mansour said. "Only not jewelry, I really like painting, and stitching, sewing.”

Kulkarni said the participants bring their own cultural traditions to their designs, but they also learn from each other and create cross-cultural pieces that don’t fit into any category.

“We can do all kinds of beautiful things with whatever we have, it doesn’t matter which country we come from,” Kulkarni said.

Kulkarni is an immigrant herself, from India, so she said she can relate to the women she works with.

"I had the advantages of a good education, I had skills. But I can see the barriers to success that they face," she said. "Social, economic, linguistic. I did not have those. So I think it is my duty that I do something to help them because I’m in a unique position.”

She took a jewelry-making class out of sheer boredom while on a visit to India, and fell in love with the craft. She saw the potential for a home-based business that women could build with a very small financial investment and limited language skills, and worked with Kentucky Refugee Ministries to start training women in the fall 2011. They sell their products at art fairs and farmers’ markets, as well as home parties.

“It’s really hard to believe that what started as a small group of women trying to complete a single retail project has grown into this full-fledged, female-driven entrepreneurial enterprise with a limitless capacity to grow,” Kulkarni said.

She’s replicating the model to create a line of snacks and sweets called Gourmet Treasures, and handmade clothing and alterations, called Threaded Treasures — turning the traditional “women’s work” of cooking and sewing into businesses that can supplement a family’s income.

All of the women in the class said they plan to keep making jewelry and other handmade items to sell. Kulkarni said she seeks to give participants not just basic skills, but confidence.

“I don’t think just talking or attending a class is going to do it. So our focus is always on hands-on experience. When they see that they can do it, then they don’t have to be told that they can,” Kulkarni said.

(Featured image caption: Surekha Kulkarni participates in the Beaded Treasures class.  Image by J. Tyler Franklin)