Refugee women start building new lives in the Treasure Valley at Full Circle Exchange

zkyle@idahostatesman.comApril 11, 2014 

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    Full Circle started five years ago in Eagle as a small nonprofit trying to tackle a behemoth problem: poverty in developing nations. In his travels around the world, Full Circle CEO Mark Priddy saw that the problem was often tied to marginalizing women, so he set up small operations that gave women jobs making scarves, jewelry and household goods.

    Last year, Full Circle employed nearly 1,200 women in 15 countries and produced goods sold in national retailers including Wal-Mart and Macy's. Full Circle Exchange products can be found locally at Natural Grocers, Anthropologie, the Boise Co-Op and Dunia Marketplace. The nonprofit funds its operations with sales, donations and corporate sponsorships.

    Priddy said Full Circle workers worldwide are paid a living wage, which varies depending on the country. In Rwanda, Priddy said, Full Circle workers receive more than $10 a day, compared with the average women's wage of $2 or $3. Third-party auditors ensure that the entire supply chains feeding materials to Full Circle sites observe fair trade standards, he said.

    Wal-Mart has proved to be an excellent partner for Full Circle despite its reputation for paying low wages to its own employees, Priddy said.

    "I'm not trying to defend Wal-Mart," Priddy said. "As the largest company in the world, they get their nose bloody quite a bit. But I can say our relationship with Wal-Mart has been the best we've had in the retail industry."

No one would blame Denise Baukure for being sullen. The refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo buried her husband after he was killed in a machete attack. Two of her children are missing in Uganda, a nation ravaged by genocide.

Those memories traveled with Baukure when she came to Boise last year. Those memories keep her awake.

They don't keep her from smiling.

Baukure, 41, spent Tuesday customizing Mother's Day cards at her job at Full Circle Exchange on East Lanark Street behind the Meridian RC Willey. She works with refugees from Iraq, Nepal, Somalia, Burma and other countries that are torn by violence or political unrest. They speak different languages and have fled from different crises, but all were grinning as they folded cards.

Baukure said she hopes people see strength in the way she carries herself.

"Don't let the problems cover you," she said. "You cover the problems."

She folded a card, glued a die-cut bird made of heavy paper to its front and finished with her favorite part: signing the back. She said knowing her name will travel to 2,700 Wal-Marts helps keep her going.


Though based in Eagle, the nonprofit Full Circle Exchange didn't operate in the U.S. until January. It sought to empower women in developing countries by providing living-wage jobs. CEO Mark Priddy said he saw that many women in the Treasure Valley's refugee community could benefit from a similar opportunity as they start their new lives in the U.S.

Full Circle hired 65 refugees for the Meridian site, almost all women. The Full Circle staff trained them how to fold and prepare the 40 card designs. Some of the women had never signed their names before.

They earn between $8 and $9 an hour, Priddy said.

The women were intimidated at first, Priddy said. Many came from cultures where they weren't expected to work outside of home. Some were afraid of men and kept their heads down around him.

Slowly, the women's confidence grew as they prepared 200,000 cards over three months, Priddy said. They started looking him in the eye.

"When I look at the ladies out there, they inspire me, because they've been through real hardship," he said. "But look at their faces. They want to work. They want to know that they matter, that people will give them an opportunity."

Baukure, who speaks French, Swahili and better English than most, said the women find common ground by teaching each other words. She said the work keeps their minds from dwelling on the lives they left behind.

"It would be too sad to stay home thinking about the bad past," she said. "We are refugees. We all have (a) bad past."


The operation in Meridian isn't designed to provide long-term employment.

Instead, the program will tackle three-month projects such as the recently completed Mother's Day card order. Priddy said Full Circle will maintain a staff of about 12 refugees between projects. Baukure is one of the holdovers.

Throughout each project, women will receive on-the-job training as well as twice-a-week English classes. The goal, Priddy said, is for the Full Circle jobs to lead to permanent work. He said 12 women were hired at a Full Circle job fair after the first project for positions at hotels, hospitals and maid services.

Baukure said she's taking driving classes so that she can attend evening classes, though she hasn't yet decided what she wants to study. In the meantime, she's grateful for the chance to stay at Full Circle, which soon will begin another three-month project making a different batch of cards.

Baukure misses her homeland. She misses her mother, who is still there. She misses her children, and hopes they are still alive. She tries to look ahead and to improve life for her youngest son, her only family in Boise.

Baukure said she asked to take home a blemished Mother's Day card. It now sits on her nightstand. It reads "Hero Mom" and comforts her when she can't stop thinking about burying her husband or worrying about her missing children in Africa.

"When I sleep, sometimes I get problems and think, 'Now my life is finished' " she said. "Then I see the card and think, 'No, no, no. I have to be a hero. I have to be strong.' "

Zach Kyle: 377-6464, @IDS_zachkyle

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