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W eaving Although 8,000 miles apart and from vastly different cultures, islanders from Mindoro in the Philippines and sheepherders from the mountains of who crossed their path. Alona Mugbuhos, a 16-year-old who lived in an overcrowded hut in Puerto Galera with three generations of her family, walked the beaches daily, offering her handmade bracelets to tourists. When she approached the Kuhlows, they were happy to purchase some from her, and when Alex and Chris look back on this meeting, they reflect that it was Alona’s quiet courage and respectful behavior that drew them to her that day. That beach became a favorite getaway for the Kuhlows, and over the next several years the family regularly met up with Alona. She began to spend time with them on the beach, braiding Chris’ hair and playing in the sand with their children. Eventually, the Kuhlows invited her to visit their home in Manila. Alona had relatives living there, but the Kuhlows noticed that she did not go to see them.When they asked her why, she told them that her relatives expected her “to do things that she didn’t want to do” to earn her keep while visiting. While statistics vary somewhat, they are all sobering: According to a 2005 UNICEF report, children are commonly targeted for the sex trade, and up to 100,000 children in the Philippines are involved in prostitution rings, with a high concentration of this in tourist areas. As the Asian economy struggles, many children are forced to leave school and find work to supplement their families’ meager incomes. In Puerto Galera, a sprawling mountainous city of nearly 20,000 souls that depends upon tourism to survive, more than 70 percent of the population is under age 25. Not much employment is available to young people in these locales, and the temptation to exploit young family members is strong. During a weekend break at the beach in 2003, the Kuhlows were forced to confront this issue head-on when Alona, in obvious distress, told them that one of her close friends had recently succumbed to prostitution to help provide for her family. With their eyes opened to the presence and pressure of the sex industry, the Kuhlows wanted somehow to encourage Alona to persevere in her efforts to make an honorable income. They decided to purchase 5,000 pesos’ worth (about $100 US) of bracelets from her. Alona didn’t have that many bracelets on hand, but she promised to have them when they came back again. Sure enough, next time the family set foot on that beach, Alona brought them 1,200 bracelets. Startled at the number

THREADS OF HOPE B y S h elly C u rtis

In 1997, Puerto Galera, a tourist town on the island of Mindoro, Philippines, was identified by UNICEF as one of the five worst Filipino cities for child prostitution and sex tourism. Americans Alex and Chris Kuhlow didn’t know this when they went there in 1998. On vacation from their position as dorm parents at Faith Academy, a boarding school in crowded Manila, the Kuhlows simply wanted to relax and enjoy the sun and surf far from the city clamor and the pressures of fostering a dozen teenage boys. On their first day on the beach, they had an encounter that would prove life-changing for both them and the young Filipina

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L iving

Morocco hold a common thread. Both groups are emerging from grinding poverty through the work of their hands and the support of people of faith. she presented, Alex quickly did the math in his head and questioned Alona about her profit. She assured them 23 cents an hour was a good income for her family and that they were grateful to have it without having to walk the beaches hoping for sales. Not thinking beyond the immediate, the Kuhlows wondered what in the world they would do with 1,200 bracelets. During their annual summer furlough, they took the bracelets back to the US. After giving some as gifts, they sold the rest at family camp for a dollar apiece. Returning to the Philippines and to Puerto Galera, they took that $1,000 — more money than the average Filipino family would see in a year — and, still thinking to encourage Alona in her endeavors, ordered more bracelets. “Whenever Alona and her family thanked us for what we were doing,” says Alex,“we made sure they understood that we were only instruments that God was using to bless them.” When the Kuhlows and their children began to share with their friends and coworkers about their experience and the needs of families in Puerto Galera, many took bracelets to sell during their own furloughs, at athletic events, or in their workplaces. The money poured in. As the Kuhlows continued to order bracelets, it became evident that more at-risk families could be helped if the profits were reinvested in the purchase of more bracelets. It was then that Alex and Chris recognized that God was presenting them with a much bigger opportunity than they’d imagined. Alex and Chris passionately prayed for God’s direction. Calling their new ministry “Threads of Hope,” all they did initially was to repeat their story, pray for the families, and be the supply line for thread going into Puerto Galera and bracelets going out. As the bracelet orders began to increase (multiplying tenfold four years straight), the Kuhlows registered as a nonprofit organization.That incredible growth continues:They

now order more than 100,000 bracelets every month. In early 2009, after much prayer and discussion with their board of directors, they felt that God desired them to continue with Threads in a full-time capacity. No longer dorm parents, they spend their days taking internet and phone orders, purchasing and transporting thread and beads, training and encouraging the workers, and shipping orders around the world.Threads of Hope bracelets are now sold in nearly every state of the US, many Asian and European countries, Canada, and Australia. Threads of Hope’s success confounds everyone. Other missionaries visit to ask questions and, according to Alex, “call it ‘crazy’ because it’s not a business model to emulate according to the normal standards of business practices. It’s just not the usual practice to send bracelets all over the world and trust the money to come back.” However, that’s just what the Kuhlows do. They market through visibility and word of mouth, selling to individuals online, to groups who use the bracelets for fundraisers, and from booths at youth-oriented and high-traffic events. They often give out batches of 100 bracelets for free, and trust the Lord for the results — that money will come back in from the sales of these bracelets. Except for very rare cases, they see this unusual business concept work consistently to the glory of God. Sales partners, who like both the quality product and the idea of helping someone in need, take the bracelets and the story to music festivals, family camps, college

Opposite: This young boy holds bracelets his family has made. Bracelets can be custom ordered in preferred colors and styles. Photo by Chris Brett Right: Members of the Aninuan Christian Church meet together to worship. Income from bracelet sales provided enough cash to build a small sanctuary/community center. Photo by Alex Kuhlow PRISM 2 0 1 0


bookstores, county fairs, church bazaars, workplaces, retreats, and a variety of other events both Christian and secular. Most go out and sell, return the money, and do it again. Economic stability isn’t the only change prompted by Threads of Hope. In 2006, Alex asked friend and Manila pastor Alejo Matienzo to accompany their family to Puerto Galera and share the gospel with the people in their heart language. Alona, her mother and grandmother, and several other individuals became believers in Christ.“Pastor Al,” as he is known, was amazed by their receptiveness and felt the Lord calling him to move his family to the village to shepherd the new believers and begin a church. Income from Threads has provided enough cash flow to allow the people to build a church/ community center for further ministry. Currently 400 members strong, Aninuan Christian Church regularly baptizes new believers and works to spread the gospel to others in the village through programs for children and medical care provided by Pastor Al’s daughter. Threads of Hope presently employs an average of 300 people monthly, with each individual contracting to make roughly 400 bracelets, depending on style. Every 10-cent bracelet sold at $1 means that 10 more bracelets can be made and the process repeated. Because weaving bracelets requires minimal training and supplies, entire families can participate, from the children up to the grandparents. Generally, two or three adults from each family have contracts with Threads, and many are men. “They’re doing a lot of the work,” acknowledged Alex, “because there are no construction or manual labor jobs available in the area.” A contract with Threads allows a man to make what Alex terms “a living wage” — enough to buy rice and sustain his family until other satisfactory employment can be obtained. Bracelet makers weave three to four bracelets an hour when they begin, the equivalent of about 25 cents an hour. As their skill increases they are able to work more quickly, and the earnings potential increases. Alex recently videotaped one teenage girl weaving a bracelet in three minutes. She is dexterous and quick enough to make up to $8 a day, the equivalent to the pay of an adult police officer in that region. The Kuhlows have observed that families earning money through Threads are no longer being targeted for the sex industry. “Providing an honorable and stable income takes the target off their backs. The people aren’t approached because they don’t appear desperate enough,” explained Alex. In fact, because they have a contract, the Threads bracelet makers no longer have to walk the beaches at all. Until recently, Alona was the sole representative of Threads of Hope in Puerto Galera. Threads paid for her to return to school and finish sixth grade — and she utilizes every bit of that education in her management position. Now 28, she makes

Thanks to Threads of Hope, instead of selling bracelets on the beach, where they would be vulnerable to sex traffickers, these girls are able to attend school. Photo by Chris Kuhlow a good enough living that she and her sister were able to move from the thatched hut they shared with their parents, grandparents, and other family members to a new home with cement block walls and a floor that’s not dirt. In spite of — even because of — this success, Alona and others have declined to take a pay increase.They see so many other families who could benefit from the work, and they’d rather teach more people to make bracelets and earn an honorable income than take more money for themselves. Managing Threads of Hope is an evolving process. On a recent visit to Puerto Galera to deliver thread and beads, Alex met with Alona and Pastor Al and determined that she was being overwhelmed by the many issues arising from being in charge of more than 300 individuals at a time. Now, like Moses, she has trustworthy overseers, each in charge of teams of employees; these overseers are voted into leadership and expected to evenly distribute orders, showing no favoritism in the process. Threads of Hope impacts not only the spiritual life and family economics of those involved, but also the economics of the region. Flooding and damage from storms in 2009 greatly impacted the Philippines. Although Puerto Galera was not extensively damaged by weather, it did experience significant loss in local trade due to the hampered tourism industry. This made the stability of worldwide sales of bracelets through Threads of Hope partnerships even more significant. Today the Kuhlows are still amazed at how God initiated such a creative solution through that one relationship begun on the beach during a vacation. One small transaction resulted in the weaving together of hearts from all over the world. And in a village where hopelessness once reigned, hope is overcoming, thread by thread. n Learn more at Shelly Curtis is a teacher and freelance writer from Upland, Ind., whose family sells Threads of Hope bracelets in their workplaces and at youth events.

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squatters, they are not permitted to build permanent houses on the land, in spite of harsh winter weather conditions. And so the herders construct temporary dwellings, piling up walls of loose rocks, which are plentiful in the hills, layering plastic overhead to keep out the rain, adding handwoven rugs for insulation, and topping the structure off with flattened metal milk powder cans. The rural community of Tarmilat is located on a 5-kilometer limestone plateau upon which the sheep graze. Berbers have lived in this community for close to 60 years. The shepherds are paid partly in cash and partly in kind; they are allowed to keep one out of every four lambs born to the flock in their care. In 2004, a rug weaving cooperative was launched in the community thanks to the involvement of Hand in Hand, a student-led humanitarian development organization of Al Akhawayn University.Al Akhawayn, which means “two brothers,” was founded by the King of Morocco in 1995 to be a place of interfaith dialogue in this Islamic nation. Rev. Karen Thomas Smith, the American chaplain to the Christian community at Al Akhawayn, was one of the driving forces behind the Tarmilat project. Says Smith, “It is important to us as a church community to work in service projects alongside our Muslim colleagues. Muslim community members and student leaders welcomed us foreign Christians as partners in this venture.We helped the community raise money and do some marketing through ex-pat networks of churches and other groups wanting to support development projects.We also helped the women of Tarmilat connect with Berbers of the High Atlas doing a similar project with the help of Franciscan sisters; they were thrilled to share their expertise with the women of Tarmilat. It has been a joy to undertake this work hand in hand with Muslim friends.” Today almost everyone in the Tarmilat community draws additional income from involvement in the cooperative — the men working as herders, the women as weavers.Ito and Aischa are co-leaders of the group, coordinating work and transmitting requests to the women. Each weaver purchases her own wool, dyes, and other necessary materials and then brings her rugs to the cooperative to be sold. After shearing, the wool is carded with a rough comb and then spun onto a long spool. The women use only natural dyes, derived from onions, pomegranates, henna, and various wildflowers. Excited by the arrival of American customers who have come to hear their stories and purchase their rugs, the weavers gather in a dimly lit, low stone building. Showers beat a steady rhythm on the tin roof as a pool of rainwater expands slowly

b y Helen L epp F riesen

Morocco is a country of storytellers, shepherds, and craftspeople. Statistics indicate that 60 percent of adult females and 36 percent of adult males in Morocco are illiterate, but statistics don’t tell the whole — or the most important — story.“Illiterate” defines a person by a particular deficiency, but many people who cannot read are rich in other strengths and skills. Morocco’s indigenous Berbers, who comprise about 40 percent of the country’s 30 million citizens, are accustomed to being defined in terms of deficiency. When it comes to representation in government and voice, Arab culture dominates. Although Morocco gained its independence from France more than 40 years ago, it took time for the government to promote the Berber language and culture. Mohammed VI, who was crowned king a decade ago, has made efforts to improve Berber rights, including adding their language to education curriculum and creating a new alphabet for the language. Singing, dancing, and storytelling substitute for reading and writing among the Berbers, and when measured by these talents, the Berber population ranks high in wealth and aptitude. And when it comes to surviving challenging conditions, the Berbers in the community of Tarmilat exhibit Olympian talents. Tucked amid the Middle Atlas Mountains, 10 kilometers down the road from the tourist and university town of Ifrane, the community of Tarmilat is home to 24 Berber families whose main livelihood is sheepherding.The grazing land is governmentowned, and most of the sheep are owned by wealthy families in Ifrane and the surrounding area, who hire the Berbers to care for their flocks. Since the sheepherders are technically

It takes a month to weave a 5-foot by 5-foot rug, which sells for about US$35. PRISM 2 0 1 0


He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as craftsmen, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple, and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers — all of them master craftsmen and designers. Exodus 35:35

dark shanty, their shoulders draped in plastic cloaks to fend off the rain dripping from the leaky roof. One by one they spread out their rugs and woven handbags. Attached to each piece is a tag with a photo and brief description of the craftswoman who made it. A handbag the color of cinnamon, paprika, and cream bears the photo and story of Fatima, a married woman with no children. She is the second wife of an elderly deaf man whose first wife is disabled. For seven years Fatima has lived in Tarmilat, where her primary responsibility is to manage her home and care for her husband’s first wife. An indigo-and-charcoal-colored handbag bears the story of Milouda. Born in 1985 and raised in a different village, Milouda married her cousin, who lives in Tarmilat, and became the first literate woman in the village. Having completed the seventh grade, Miolouda acts as bookkeeper and secretary for the cooperative. Meryem’s story is attached to a large rug woven in shades of cream, pink, black, and blue. Meryem is 66 years old and has three grown sons who are all looking for employment. Her daughter, Aischa, helps lead the weaving project. Meryem uses her rug money to help pay for her arthritis medication. The women look on eagerly to see which items will catch the eye of their customers.When the final selection is placed before the bookkeeper, she writes down the purchases, accepts the dirhams, and immediately distributes the cash to the maker of each purchased piece. With the transaction completed, a woman brings in a tray spread with a pot of sweet mint tea, small glasses, and a plate of milwee, a flat pancake-like bread. Over refreshments, the women explain the kinds of entertainment their community enjoys.With no electricity, entertainment consists of drumming, singing, chanting, telling stories, and, in the winter, sledding. Weddings are the social highlights of the year, lasting several days and consisting of dancing and feasting. The American customers leave Tarmilat under a rainy sky. Bearing piles of colorful carpets and handbags in their arms, they also carry away with them the stories and vivid images of the people who made these purchases possible: women waking early to make a fire, men cloaked in warm blankets as they herd sheep, mothers and children leading water-laden donkeys over rough terrain, a people poor by the world’s economic and educational standards but rich nonetheless — in history, courage, skill, hospitality, and heart. n

The bookkeeper distributes cash to the weavers as soon as the sale is complete. on the floor. As the rain slackens, more women arrive, several of them bringing in the loom from an adjacent building so they can demonstrate how they work. In animated voices, with the help of a translator, they describe their daily routine, which starts at 5 a.m. when they rise to build a fire to cook their family’s breakfast.The younger children go to a school that was recently built by the government, but older children work with their parents because the closest post-elementary school in Ifrane is beyond walking distance and no transportation is available. Children help their mothers fetch water from a spring 10 kilometers away, collecting it in plastic jugs and strapping it to their donkeys’ backs. They fetch firewood from the nearby forest, a precious commodity since none of their homes have heat. Entrepreneurial children in the community can earn additional income by fashioning sleds from scrap metal and wood and renting them to the tourists who pass by the road in the winter. With the proceeds from the rugs and tourism, five families have been able to purchase solar panels for their homes to power a few light bulbs or a radio, creating an anachronistic sight that is as surprising as it is impressive. The women explain that it takes one month to weave the 5-foot by 5-foot rugs, which sell for approximately 400 dirhams, or the equivalent of US$35.Their status as squatters prevents them from establishing a formal business, and one of the biggest challenges is finding a suitable market for their rugs. So far, their best market has been customers who are willing to come to the village and purchase directly from the weavers. Almost two dozen women have now assembled in the

Helen Lepp Friesen is a freelance writer. She visited the Tarmilat rug-weaving cooperative last December and came home with beautifully colored rugs and handbags. She would like to say “Shoukran,” or many thanks, to the artists of the Tarmilat Women’s Weaving Cooperative for sharing their stories, to Latifa for translating their words, and to Julie Reimer for arranging the visit.

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Weaving a Living  

2010 PRISM article

Weaving a Living  

2010 PRISM article