By Ashleigh Bugg
In Texas, quarantine measures due to COVID-19 have strained government groups as well as small businesses who have been forced to fire employees and cancel events.
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel Nell Green and expert tailors Hayder Alnajafi and Munir Masih want to offer solutions by creating face masks for organizations and individuals. These face masks are not intended for medical workers as they are not considered by authorities to be Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) because their effectiveness is not known.
According to updated guidelines from the CDC, it “recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”
The CDC also advises “the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.”
The CDC also notes that “the cloth face coverings recommended are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators. Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by current CDC guidance.”
The face mask project is a collaboration with nonprofit The Off Ramp and its daughter company, Threads by Nomad, the original clothing and design company. “It’s a clothing and creation collaboration, helping refugees thrive and not just survive, helping people have careers and not just jobs,” Green explained.
The company was started by Green and her daughter Christen Kinard and grew to include one full-time employee and three contract employees.
“As Threads by Nomad went on, we had people coming to us for more career help — help to get an interview, assistance with a resume, selling something they made. And so we eventually created the nonprofit, The Off Ramp, and moved Threads by Nomad under it,” Green said. “It is now a funding arm for The Off Ramp.”
The Off Ramp is for anyone who may be displaced, including immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers and survivors of human trafficking. Meanwhile, Threads by Nomad is run entirely by former refugees. For the four employees of Threads by Nomad, the virus led to unemployment and insecurity.
“As soon as the COVID-19 crisis hit, we lost every event we had planned for four months. This is not a luxury-buying time for people and our online sales have taken a dive. We knew we were going to have to lay off our employees,” Green said.
However, Green also had contacts in the Texas government who offered a temporary solution.
“I have a friend in their anti-trafficking ward, and she had this idea of making face masks,” Green said. The arrangement is not ideal for employees who are not currently at a sustainable wage, although they are above the industry average. “I can’t pay that right now,” Green explained. “Since they were furloughed, we contracted with two of our employees for face masks. For the foreseeable future, they can make face masks for the Texas Network of Youth Services and Texas Alliance of Children and Family Services.”
At the time of this writing, the company has had a request for 3,000 face masks with calls for more. “First, we will try to fulfill our obligations to these two organizations,” Green said. “Then we will have a form on our website where people can request masks.”
These requests will be triaged. Priority will be given to organizations that are dealing with the public and in greater need of protection. This will also include requests from people whose children are at high risk with various respiratory issues. Green emphasizes that her employees still need assistance as they are working from home for lower wages in order to help their community. “It’s not nearly enough and not what they would be making full-time, but it will hopefully be enough to pay some of the rent and put some food on the table,” she said.
Both employees are expert tailors. Alnajafi is from Iraq and was kidnapped on more than one occasion by Al-Qaeda. He sought asylum and was eventually able to get his family to safety in the U.S. He has three boys. “He passed his citizenship exam one day before I had to tell him that we were not going to be able to stay open for the immediate future,” Green said.
Masih is from Pakistan. He has a wife and a newborn baby girl. He was working for the company as a contract employee as well as another tailoring business in Houston; but he hadn’t had work assignments from them for a month.
Both employees have been with the company for several years and bring years of experience to the table. “Hayder was our first hire, and he’s been with us since summer of 2016,” Green said. “Munir started working with us within two weeks of his arrival in 2018.” The employees are currently on contract and are paid by the piece.
Threads by Nomad also employs Atia Mullai from Afghanistan who lends her expertise in hand embroidery as well as Iman Attrah who finished her first collection for the brand.
“Iman is from Iraq, and had just come on board through The Off Ramp,” Green explained. “She was developing products as well as her jewelry-making skills and had just finished her first collection. But the event where she would debut her work was canceled. “She had worked two events, but now there are no more events,” Green said. “She went from just getting going with a glorious start and then coming to a crashing halt.”
To support these artisans, Green encourages donations to The Off Ramp.
“Through The Off Ramp, if people donate, it will help us support folks through our face mask initiative. We are trying to keep these masks as inexpensive as possible and are underwriting much of the cost,” she said. “We don’t want the costs to be prohibitive.”
According to Green, if people give, it will offset what they pay their workers. People can also donate 100 percent cotton and have it sent to Green to help with costs of materials. “We are in desperate need of one eighth-inch wide elastic,” Green said. “You can’t buy it. It’s as bad as toilet paper. It can’t be wider than that.”
People may donate to help with salaries or they can shop Threads by Nomad. All funds raised by Threads will go to The Off Ramp and will support the face mask project. Participants are encouraged to check out two websites: Threads by Nomad and The Off Ramp. They may also ship materials to 9833 Sandra Ann Court in Houston, TX 77025.
Despite the hardship, Green sees positives. “I have been overwhelmed at the beauty of people connecting in this. People have gone out of their way to say, ‘We care about your employees,’” Green said. “It’s really been amazing, the connections and collaboration. People willing to come together and say, ‘What do you need, what can I do?’ It’s not unlike what we saw after Hurricane Harvey. It became a lot less about me or you, and it became a lot more about me and you,” People genuinely care and even though I don’t employ the masses, they care that my employees will be hurting.”
For Green, it has been a moment of resilience. “Hayder passed his citizenship exam on a Wednesday. On Thursday, everything was canceled and by Friday, I started getting phone calls,” she said. “On Saturday, orders came in. By Sunday, we were in production. This provides a lot of hope for now.” Although conditions are not ideal, and her employees still need support, Green tries to remain optimistic. “I’ve had friends call and say, ‘Can I cut out the masks to reduce some of the labor?’” she said. “People have been very, very kind, considerate and helpful.”
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has created a resource hub for the benefit of individuals and congregations in these uncertain times. Bold Faith Resources features original and curated resources for children, youth, adults, worship, missions, prayer, spiritual care, Spanish speakers and digital ministry resources for churches. This hub also includes all COVID-19-related news and updates for the Fellowship. Learn more at www.cbf.net/boldfaith.
Hear an update from CBF field personnel Nell Green as she continues to minister during COVID-19 in the video below.