By Marga Fripp
Empowered Women International
In 2001, nine days after September 11, I immigrated to the US after a medical emergency with my newborn son, who suffered a brain stroke two days after he was born.
My husband, a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania, and I had no plans to come to the United States, but this medical situation changed everything for us. We were told that our son might never speak, hear, see, or be able to walk. We came to America like many immigrants, with hope and faith that what we would find here would save our son’s life.
We arrived in the United States during a very difficult time for everyone in this country, myself and our family included. I didn’t speak English at that time, and I can’t express how challenging everything was. My son needed my full attention and care, as did my 8-year-old daughter. Once a week, every week for a year, we went to Children’s Hospital for Physical Therapy. Day by day I prayed that my son would get better and stronger.
During my first months in the United States, struggling to understand the culture, learn English, and find a job, while taking care of my son, I realized how difficult it was for immigrants, especially for women who left a professional career behind, to integrate, to retain their sense of worth, to have a sense of belonging and provide for their families.
Before immigrating to the United States, I had already worked my way up the journalism ladder to be an award-winning broadcast journalist. But at the age of 22, I was banned from journalism for speaking my mind and standing up for the poor and the orphans in my country. Undeterred, I started a nonprofit organization, which initiated, advocated for, and helped pass Romania’s first Domestic Violence law. I had accomplished much at a young age, yet without English language skills and a network of support, these experiences seemed worthless in this country.
After enrolling in an English language class, things began to change for me. I met a large community of highly talented and educated women, many of them artists, writers, anthropologists, published authors—all in one ESL class at Montgomery College.
I started to talk to the women. Despite their education, talents, and skills, many of these women were paid $5 an hour doing menial jobs. I was shocked! I couldn’t believe it. When I heard their stories and what brought them to the United States, I realized I was not the only one feeling lost and dis-empowered. And I was not going to give up on re-becoming myself. With my identity shattered and no sense of belonging, I went on to seek meaning in my new life.
My vision was to create a community of women for women, who can help one another succeed; a place where women support each other, and where others can hear the stories these women tell. A place where the American Dream lives on, and everyone feels welcome and at home.
I realized that when women told their stories, people listened. There was empathy. There was compassion. There was understanding. Many of the women I’ve met did not speak English well or at all, but they used paintings and music to tell stories. People responded to this media and I believed there was a viable business opportunity for these women to sell their artwork, products, and crafts if they could obtain the right skills.
Empowered Women International (EWI) came to life in May 2002.
Our mission is to help immigrant, refugee, and low-income women integrate into the community, rebuild their lives, families, and livelihoods, and pursue the American Dream using the power of the arts as a means for communication, cultural understanding, and entrepreneurship.
Ten years later, what started out as a network of immigrants, women artists, and a few business classes has blossomed into an organization that trains more than 200 immigrants, refugees, and low-income women in business and leadership skills every year. It also launches socially responsible micro-businesses that support women and their families, as well as our local economy.
On a personal note: I am pleased to report that today my son is a healthy and talented 11 years old. My daughter is a Posse Scholar and a freshman at Sewanee, the University of the South in Tennessee. And my husband, who pursued a career in micro-finance after Peace Corps, currently works for ShoreBank International in Washington, DC.
About Empowered Women International
Our passion is entrepreneurship, and our clients deserve a chance.
Women come to EWI from all walks of life. They face tremendous hardships, from isolation to domestic abuse to unemployment and underemployment—59 percent are immigrant or refugee; 66 percent are low-income, making less than $30,000 a year; 77 percent are considered at-risk; 62 percent are heads of households, and 24 percent are single mothers. They all deserve a chance.
Our approach is unique.
EWI is the only organization in the region that uses the power of the arts, entrepreneurship, women’s voices, and their cultural heritage to empower women and transform their lives. We use innovative means to combat poverty and prejudice, and to enact sustainable, systemic social change. We help women integrate into the community and recognize their contribution to the fabric of our society.
Our holistic model creates jobs.
The organization delivers a holistic model of empowerment through entrepreneurship training, business mentoring, and community service that builds women’s confidence, business, and leadership skills. Our comprehensive three-month training program, Entrepreneur Training for Success (ETS)—coupled with a year-long mentoring program, marketing support, and civic engagement—helps entrepreneur graduates create pathways to self-sufficiency and citizenship.
After participating in the ETS program:
- Unemployment among their clients decreased by 34 percent
- 57 percent saw their children enroll in college or a specialized school
- 70 percent consider themselves to be a better role model to their children and family
- 83 percent have donated money or goods to charitable organizations
- 90 percent of our clients have volunteered in the community.
- Self-esteem for most increased dramatically
Ready to get involved? For more information, visit Empowered Women International at ewint.org.