UPTOWN — Relocating from her native Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sandra Muyumba found a home in Chicago and a job at Eli’s Cheesecake. After more than a year in her new home, life was good — until the coronavirus pandemic caused Muyumba and her husband to lose their jobs.
But Muyumba has found a way to stay busy while out of work: She’s joined a group of refugees making protective masks for those in need.
“I am offering myself as a volunteer,” Muyumba said. “It’s to keep my time while I’m not working. Now, I’m very busy. I’m making masks and I can stay home.”
Muyumba is part of a mask-making operation spearheaded by RefugeeOne, an Uptown-based group that helps refugees resettle in Chicago. RefugeeOne offers a sewing class to help people find jobs, but the most recent class was upended by the pandemic.
With members no longer able to meet in person, RefugeeOne decided to get sewing machines to members of the class. As a final project of sorts, students were asked to make cloth face masks, which were to be donated to people who can’t obtain the protective gear, said RefugeeOne advocacy manager Jims Porter.
A $1,000 grant from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helped fund the materials needed to make the masks, Porter said. That allowed about 15 RefugeeOne clients to make 1,000 masks.
But with the need for face masks growing, RefugeeOne has been able to expand its program, help its clients earn an income and provide a service to the community. The agency has now made 1,600 masks and is taking bulk orders from the public, said Annie Sommer Kaufman, sewing studio manager for the group.
“We all knew it was a need for the community that we could help fill,” Kaufman said. “They are all proud and eager to be making masks for the community and for themselves.”
RefugeeOne has donated more than 100 masks to state Sen. Ram Villivalam, whose West Ridge district includes a sizable refugee population. Masks donations have also been made to Meals on Wheels, Evanston-based Connections For the Homeless and the Selfhelp Home, an Edgewater senior living center which employs a number of RefugeeOne clients, Porter said.
More than 200 masks have also been donated to Ald. James Cappleman (46th), whose Uptown ward has housed RefugeeOne for 35 years. The ward office knew RefugeeOne had a sewing program, and so it reached out to inquire about masks, said Tressa Feher, Cappleman’s chief of staff.
The ward office has donated the masks to local homeless shelters and homebound residents, with the Uptown Church coordinating the delivery, Feher said. The program is a win-win because it employs RefugeeOne clients, through local donations, in a way that gives back to the local community, she said.
“It’s just a great circle of giving,” Feher said.
Muyumba so far has made 188 masks from her West Ridge home. She already knew how to sew, so she didn’t take a class with the organization. But after learning of Illinois’ order to wear face masks in public, Muyumba said she reached out to RefugeeOne to see if they were making the protective gear. The group got her a new sewing machine and materials to get started.
Making the masks has been a critical source of income as many local refugees work in the service sector and other industries decimated by the pandemic, the advocacy group said. But Muyumba has turned down the money.
Instead, Muyumba said she is happy to provide a service and stay busy during the coronavirus crisis.
Though she is out of work, Muyumba and her husband have received unemployment, which helps pay the bills, she said.
“Coronavirus … it shut down a lot of dreams for the nation,” Muyumba said. “I’ll continue to make the masks until the end of the journey of coronavirus.”
How to order masks from RefugeeOne: The refugee aid group is taking orders of at least 3 masks for $10 each. Those interested in ordering the masks should email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To make a donation to RefugeeOne’s mask program: Visit the nonprofit’s website here or write a check to RefugeeOne, 4753 N. Broadway, Ste 401, 60640. Please note “sewing studio” in the check memo or the online gift note.
Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.