When World Relief Dupage/Aurora told me about this company who was not only employing refugees but even requesting more folks from World Relief be sent to their way I was so excited to help document this story. In the current climate of fear and many misconceptions about refugees this business sees refugees as an asset!! I was excited to learn more and make images that helped tell the story of this mutually beneficial relationship.
I met Ancila Munganyinka at the end of my time at the factory. I was immediately drawn to her beautiful smile and contagious laugh and when I learned she spoke Swahili I was beyond excited ( I think she was completely shocked when she learned I could speak with her and the look on her face was fabulous)!! She was sewing and telling me part of her story of escaping her country and having to move multiple times through different countries and camps and all the life adjustments required later in her life. She told me that when she moved the U.S. she had heard that you need to work very hard here to survive and she was worried about finding work. "I am sick, old, I don't know English and I am deaf. What will I do to provide?" The answer was AJR Filtration in St. Charles, Il. She explained that with only a little sewing background she was able to complete the training (even testing out of the sewing school quickly) and now works sewing medical supplies for the company. She pointed out with pride that the colorful dress she was wearing was sewn by her! She now has work that she enjoys and provides for her. She loves meeting people and no longer feels as lonely in her life in the states.
Refugees and displaced people are vulnerable even when they are resettled away from the violence and daily threats to their safety that define their life before coming to the U.S. (or one of many other receiving countries). They are in a new place with new cultural norms, new roles, new rules, and they are expected to provide for themselves and their families quickly. This can be overwhelming in the best of circumstances but especially when you have experienced trauma.
AJR Filtration understands that refugees want to work and are eager to make a good life for themselves and their family in their new country. Refugees are resilient and have survived things most of us just read about in newsfeeds. AJR understands they can be a blessing to any company's workforce. Jakob Rukel founded AJR in 1996 after immigrating to the U.S. from Croatia with his family. At the start of their time in America he and his wife each had to work 3 jobs just to provide for their family. His sons (John and Angelo) now run the company with the desire to help others that are starting over in a new place realize the same dream that was available to them. John showed us around the facilities and allowed us to meet and talk with many of the current employees and folks enrolled in the sewing school now managed by refugees who started in it (one Burmese woman started sewing out of her garage before finding employment at AJR and now trains others in the on site sewing school). After folks successfully complete the paid sewing school they have the opportunity for gainful employment at AJR. AJR has hired 306 refugees through World Relief Dupage/Aurora to date and plan to continue their relationship. I was so grateful to meet many of the refugees working at AJR as well and the staff and owners. It is a privilege to partner with WRDA to tell these important stories that offer us all a glimpse into what cooperation and using influence and resources to offer folks opportunity looks like in real time. Thanks to AJR & WRDA!!
current sewing school class at AJR
John & the sewing school leaders from Burma