10 Rising Hearts: Student helping refugees

A University of Tennessee mater's student is part of team helping women in Knoxville who were refugees. The program is called Intertwined.

An East Tennessee woman is not only working on her master's degree but also working to improve the lives of refugees.

Amanda Arwe works with "a group of women who came to the U.S. as refugees who make handmade items and then take those items to sell to bring back income for their family."

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While the women sew, they weave together new lives in Knoxville. A church gives them space and a team of volunteers gives them help through a program called Intertwined.

Arwe loves working with refugees. She earned a bachelor's degree in French and now is pursuing her master's degree in social work at the University of Tennessee.

"I've always loved other cultures and social work is just sort of the next step of that. Understanding culture and helping to change systems to make life better for people," she said.

Arwe said they learn more than sewing skills. Intertwined helps with English, computer skills, how to start and run a business and how to become a citizen. In fact, two of the women from Iraq that have gone through the program are now U.S. citizens.

"These women can live sustainable lives not just surviving anymore but really thriving in their new environment," Arwe said.

New people come in and others graduate, in a sense. They are mostly from the Middle East and mostly speak Arabic.

The women make their craft items with donated fabric and sell them on Etsy and at craft events. It is a sewing co-op so they divide the proceeds evenly and support each other in their new lives. 

"The fact that they have survived that they've got that level of resilience and they are willing to try again and there is so much hope," Arwe said.

She plays down her role in their journeys, but she is making a difference.

"My role is to be their coach and their advocate. I've done a lot of different things with the women like helping them with their kids' school or helping them with housing or helping them fill out paperwork, but mostly I am just here to be a friend and anyone can do that. You don't need a degree in social work to be friend," she said.

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Once she earns her master's degree, Amanda would like to expand her work with refugees, perhaps at the state or national level. For now, she embraces these one-on-one relationships in Knoxville.

"These women are the heroes," she said. "They are the ones who have survived so much and anyone who wants to be in relationship with them, they are open. I have never met a refugee who wasn't interested in sitting down and having a cup of tea. I think a lot of our dilemmas and fears could be resolved over a cup of tea."

Or maybe even a conversation about a beautiful handmade crafts.

Intertwined is part of a larger initiative called Global Seeds. 

We are featuring students making a difference here in East Tennessee in our new series called 10 Rising Hearts. These are students who reach beyond their schools and families to help make our community better. To nominate a student, please send an email describing them and their community service to 10Hearts@wbir.com.

10 Rising Hearts