Helping refugee women adjust to their new lives in Dallas-Fort Worth was the motivation behind GAIA Empowered Women, a clothing and accessories fashion line employing artisan women from around the world. Founded in 2009 by Preston Hollow mom and former Mom Next Door Paula Minnis, GAIA, in addition to providing employment, serves as a means of connecting refugees and their stories to Americans, helping to break the ‘us’ and ‘them’ stigma. Together, the artisan women bring color and personality from each of their cultures to GAIA products and ultimately the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area. We caught up with Minnis earlier this year to discuss her ongoing passion behind GAIA in light of its new store front in Uptown.
What inspired you to start GAIA Empowered Women?
I was inspired by a refugee woman I was mentoring through the IRC (the International Rescue Committee). She was a refugee from Burma and had recently arrived to the U.S. after spending over a decade in a refugee camp in Thailand. I was really moved by her strength and grace throughout all of the new challenges she was facing after fleeing oppression and experiencing everything she did in her long journey. Then, she came here and had a whole new set of obstacles to overcome, from navigating a new country to our culture. That inspired me to do more.
How many women do you currently employ and what countries do they represent?
We currently employ 10 refugee artisans. They come from Syria, Iraq, Burma, Afghanistan, Tunisia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
How have you seen GAIA impact these women? Is there a particular story that stands out to you?
We’ve seen such a transformation. They arrive here pretty shell-shocked and stoic, with a lot of uncertainties and are just overwhelmed. We witnessed a transformation in their sense of self-confidence, level of happiness and joy in their faces and smiles when they would come to work. We’ve also witnessed some great success stories. Two have become naturalized citizens of the United States. Three have purchases homes and most have purchased cars and have their driver’s license. The very first woman that I was mentoring has since become a citizen and also voted in the last election. They’ve been able to integrate into their communities and become engaged members of our city. Their kids are also thriving at school. That’s really our goal at GAIA, to help refugees not just survive but to thrive.
In your opinion how can the community rally behind theses refugees and become a spokesperson for them in some way?
Well that’s actually one of the ways that they can—become a spokesperson and really use their voice to help clarify a misconception. They go through multiple security screenings and biometric check and are certainly vetted. The most difficult way to get to our country is as a refugee. I think there are a lot of fears that could be dispelled. Some people don’t even realize that some refugees arrive here as legal residents with social security cards, ready to earn a living. Refugees are, I always say, success stories just waiting to happen. They want to work, earn a living, provide for their families and integrate with their new home and new country, becoming engaged members of their community. There are always opportunities to hire a refugee, if you have a business. Refugees are very loyal, hard workers and have a great entrepreneurial spirit. Another way is to volunteer with resettlement agencies, such as the IRC here in Dallas and volunteer and donate. And also, shop at GAIA to help support our mission of helping women rebuild their lives through earning a living wage.