This is an excerpt from the Cause & Effect story that appears in the October 2018 edition of Grand Rapids Magazine. To read the full story, pick up the October issue on newsstands. Subscribe to Grand Rapids Magazine and enjoy each month’s Cause & Effect story.
Upon entering the storefront for Treetops Collective on South Division Avenue, it immediately becomes clear that people are at work. Commercial sewing machines are positioned along the street-side window; long tables overflow with fabric, beads and half-finished products; shelves are stacked with T-shirts, onesies and cloth baskets for sale. Women talk, laugh and enjoy each other’s company.
For one of those women, Nadia Hamad, lead seamstress for many of the products created at Treetops such as bags and children’s clothing, “Treetops changed my life 180 percent,” she said.
Hamad, her husband and their son Abdullah came directly to Grand Rapids from Baghdad five years ago. The ceramist holds a degree in fine arts in Iraq, but in Grand Rapids, she didn’t have much to do. But one day, Hamad’s neighbor saw her pottery wheel and ceramic work, and took her right to Treetops and introduced her around. Now, Hamad spends four days a week at Treetops, working around her 9-year-old son’s school schedule and bringing him with her in the summer.
“Treetops feels like another house to me; it’s my second home,” Hamad said. “When I open the door, I feel comfortable. There is a lot of activity here. This work is different; I feel like it’s who I am.”
Treetops Collective, which became a nonprofit in May 2016, is indeed, a place of many activities. Its main program is Sister Circles, which brings volunteers and refugee women together to “get to know our new sister, understand her definition of success and become allies in reaching that goal,” said Dana Doll, co-founder and executive director of Treetops Collective.
Doll saw early what it meant to make a new place home when her parents began fostering refugees while she was a teenager. She worked in East Africa after high school, studied international development at Calvin College and then moved to northern Uganda to work with women displaced by the war there. Her next step was to work for Samaritas in refugee resettlement back in Grand Rapids.
“I often wondered what happened after the resettlement phase for these women, after their basic needs were met,” Doll said. “What does it take to make a new place feel like home?”
Doll began gathering people to talk about how to help refugee women. Local representatives from resettlement programs at Bethany Christian Services and Samaritasentered the discussion, as did women leaders in the refugee community.
“We asked about what has worked well in making Grand Rapids home for them, what challenges stand in the way and how we can make the process better,” Doll said. “We listened to really understand what they were expressing.”
*Photos by Johnny Quirin