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Refugees get a warm welcome and a helping hand through Camp Washington's Welcome Project

Boutique, job skills and English lessons
Posted: 7:00 AM, May 05, 2017
Updated: 2017-05-05 11:00:48Z

CINCINNATI -- The Welcome Project , a new social enterprise in Camp Washington, aims to help refugees and revitalize the neighborhood.

The brightly colored storefront at 2936 Colerain Ave., with its turquoise door and pink curtains and patterned pillows in the windows, is the Welcome Boutique , a shop where immigrants and refugees can sell their handmade art and crafts. You can buy hand-knotted rugs, zippered pouches, prints, prayer flags and hot pads. Half the money goes toward business expenses; half goes directly to the immigrants and refugees who made the items.

The Welcome Project has already brightened Camp Washington.

"We're so happy to go there and share time and make stuff," said Lourdes Santos Martinez, a Guatemalan refugee who will help manage the Welcome Boutique. "It feels like home."

The boutique is the first phase of the Welcome Project, which began as a partnership between Wave Pool Gallery owner Cal Cullen and Sheryl Rajbhandari, the founder of Heartfelt Tidbits .

Welcome Project's Sheryl Rajbhandari works with refugees in Camp Washington.

Run entirely by volunteers, Heartfelt Tidbits helps immigrants and refugees settle into Cincinnati, providing everything from English lessons to groceries.

Rajbhandari's work began nine years ago when her husband, who is from Nepal, was asked to help a Nepali family that had come to Cincinnati. The Tamangs didn't speak much English, Rajbhandari said, and had lived for 14 days on fruit and juice because the peanut butter and jelly they had been given was unlike the food staples of their home.

"I wanted to make sure refugees no longer spend a day in this city without being welcome," Rajbhandari said.

Heartfelt Tidbits last summer began offering crafting classes for women and girls through a partnership with Wave Pool in Camp Washington. Wave Pool owner Cal Cullen had helped immigrants in Italy and wanted to continue that work in Cincinnati.

About 20 women from Iraq, Syria, Guatemala, Bhutan, Mexico, Nepal, the Congo and other countries gathered each week at Wave Pool to make things, talk and teach each other.

"The really cool thing is the friendships that develop," Rajbhandari said. "These women, they often don't speak the same language, but if you're sewing on something together, you don't need to."

The women sewed, felted, crocheted and painted, and Rajbhandari would share pictures of the things they created.

"I'd buy that!" people would comment, which made Rajbhandari and Cullen wonder how they might turn the handiwork into income for the families. The women often don't have enough English or steady transportation to work outside the home.

That's when the For Sale sign appeared on the building next to Wave Pool. The building at Colerain and Rachel Street housed a storefront, a former restaurant and eight apartments. It wasn't vacant, but it was a problem in the neighborhood, Cullen said, a place that made residents worry.

Cullen and her husband, Skip, bought the building, and the Welcome Project was born.

The Welcome Project's colorful logo.

"We really see it almost like a community center," Cullen said. "It's not really going to be just a store or an apartment building or a cafe. It's lots of things together."

The women from Heartfelt Tidbits picked out the paint colors and designed the logo. They papered the back wall of the boutique in colorful drawings that repeat the word "welcome" in many different languages, and opened the doors to the Welcome Boutique on April 30.

The back wall of The Welcome Project shows the word "welcome" handcrafted in a variety of languages by refugees.

Rajbhandari, who gave up a corporate job four years ago to grow Heartfelt Tidbits, will be mentoring Santos Martinez and Fabiola Rodriquez as they manage the boutique.

By fall, Cullen and Rajbhandari want to reopen the restaurant space under the management of a Syrian refugee. The plan is for it to be a cafe and a teaching kitchen , where people can learn the skills they need to work in restaurants, as well as a garden and restaurant incubator. The Welcome Project is seeking donations online of money, equipment and volunteers to make this next phase a reality.

Items for sale in the Welcome Project's Welcome Boutique include Tibetan prayer flags and Guatemalan pouches.

Cullen also wants to set aside one of the apartments in the building as a transitional housing space for immigrants or refugees in need. As apartments are available, the Welcome Project will work with Heartfelt Tidbits to rent to other immigrant families.

Some of the items for sale in the Welcome Project's Welcome Boutique.

The hope, Cullen said, is that as the immigrants find their space in the neighborhood, their work and presence will help with revitalization efforts in Camp Washington.

"Just painting the facade and changing the sign on the side of the building into a rotating spot for artwork, it just brightened up the whole block," Cullen said.