Former vice provost reaches out to refugee women

Fiza Shah

When Terry Kuhn retired after serving as vice provost for undergraduate studies, he and his wife, Liz, never imagined they’d be spending their future with an organization that helps Bhutanese refugees by supplying them with materials to weave bags. But that is exactly what they’re doing.

This organization, WoveninExile, initially started with four women. The Kuhns supplied the materials needed to weave the bags and sold the finished products in various markets, including the Kent State International Festival this year and several other stores in Kent such as the International Home Market in Acorn Alley. These bags were made by Bhutanese women who, along with their families, came to America seeking political asylum.

From 1988 to 1992, the Lhotshampa ethnic group in Bhutan faced many injustices from its government, including rape and torture. From 1992 to 1993, the Bhutanese government finally forced close to 100,000 of its people out of the country. Many of them recently sought a better life in the United States.

The Kuhns first became involved in their lives when Liz was approached by a man her garden club. He belonged to Catholic Charities and knew Liz was a proficient weaver.

He wanted to invite about a dozen refugees to the Kuhn house to view a PowerPoint on weaving and get an idea of what it might take to set them up with supplies. The Kuhns agreed.

“Our big question for the meeting was ‘What do you need to (be able to) weave?’” said Terry.

Rather than the dozen that was initially expected, 54 refugee women showed up in the Kuhns’ basement that day.

And so, just outside Kent State, at the Kuhn household, the WoveninExile project was created. Over the next year, from 2010 to 2011, the Kuhns financed looms, yarn and other material the women needed to weave.

Even though some of these families had been living in America for a year or more, their income was still low. Most of the Bhutanese refugees were farmers with little or no education.

Weaving gave these women something familiar in an unfamiliar land. Life in America was very different than life in the refugee camps. In the camps they lived in huts made of bamboo placed next to one another with very little space in-between. Each hut was built to accommodate about four to five people, but sometimes about 10 people lived in a single hut. With no electricity, they never used appliances such as dishwashers, microwaves or even toilets.

There were instances of the refugees being refused residence in certain apartments, under the pretense that tenants must have lived in the country for at least one year. Terry said, however, that they did not fight against this, as “they are a very kind and gentle people.”

But, even after all they’ve been through, they still haven’t given up hope. Terry asked them once, “’If the king would permit it, would you go back to Bhutan?’ They all got this tranquil smile on their faces. ‘Oh, yes, we loved it there.’”

But, for now, they have started to create another life in America. As it says on a note attached to each bag sold, “Their weavings, which interlace strands of thread, are an apt metaphor for how their lives continue to be ‘woven in exile.’”

Contact Fiza Shah at [email protected].