Displaced women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who settled in Milwaukee have built a growing business by “upcycling” plastic bags and using them to create beautifully designed handmade baskets and mats.

The group of craftswoman comprise 12 refugees who have each come from very difficult and unimaginable situations. Now living in Milwaukee, the women are doing the best they can to contribute to a society that has been so welcoming to them. They are supported by Why Not Now Missions, a local nonprofit focused on empowering vulnerable populations so that they can reach their full potential.

“It has been such a joy and honor to work with the women of Milwaukee’s newest artisans. I have learned more from them than they will ever know,” said Shannon Robak, founder of Why Not Now Missions.

Robak established the organization because she believed that everyone deserved to have equal access to opportunities, regardless of where or into what circumstances we were born. The idea originated from her experience in Southeast Asia, where people showed her hospitality and receive her with unlimited grace.

Many of the Congolese women already knew how to crochet. A community volunteer from Cathedral Square Enterprises taught them how to adapt the craft to incorporate using plastic bags instead of yarn. Once they realized the process could be done with such a commonplace and sturdy resource, they embraced the project and production took off.

As a group, the artists recently surpassed $10,000 of sales in less than a year of participating at events around the city. As of April, they have sold more than 500 baskets, and saved almost 32,000 plastic bags from going into the landfill.

Every single penny goes to the individual artisan who made the item. Robak said that money some women earn from the project helps support their family. The process also improves their English skills. Language remains one of the challenges they face, preventing them from better engaging with customers.

Equally important to the financial assistance, the craftswoman have learned new skills which has given them a sense of renewed hope. The women are also proud to share their talents with a community that has been so support of them.

© Photo

Lee Matz