Brushes, paint, brightly colored fabric, and canvas surround Deborah de la Reguera in a workshop in Fells Point called Tembo Group. Nearby, three artists are hard at work. One woman paints an acrylic monarch butterfly on a small canvas, another looks up Google images of textiles and brightly colored patterns, and another finishes the seamless lining of an incredibly detailed hand-crocheted purse.
De la Reguera worked in corporate America for mid-sized companies in finance and marketing before moving to Baltimore, where she became the interim president for a nonprofit. She has served on various boards and, in the fall of 2005, started volunteering for Ten Thousand Villages, the fair trade artisan shop in Fells Point. “I really loved it because of all the handcrafted items,” she says. “They brought in items from around the world, and provided a fair wage. It had a great culture of letting people lift themselves up through their efforts, which I believe in.”
Eventually de la Reguera became store manager for Ten Thousand Villages, where she met Molly Corbett, who later worked with Asylee Women Enterprise, which helps women seeking asylum. “I started to get to know a little bit more about the community and realized what Ten Thousand Villages had been doing with overseas people,” de la Reguera says. “There were so many people that were coming to the United States that had the same talents and they needed jobs here.”
Then, de la Reguera created Tembo Group, a store/workshop in Fells Point that features art made on the premises by local immigrants and refugees. She got in touch with a half-dozen nonprofits who work with refugees, and although they were all supportive, only Lutheran Social Services responded with an offer of partnership.
De la Reguera worked with Lutheran Social Services to spread the word to the community that she was hiring artists. More than a dozen people showed up for the interview, but, not being an artist herself, de la Reguera wasn’t exactly sure how to go about picking the right candidates.
“There’s so much people have to go through” in addition to finding employment, de la Reguera says. “In something like three to four months’ time, they’re expected to be self-sufficient in this country when they come over. Many times they have to learn our language. They have to learn the public transportation system. So the idea was, one less thing for them to have to worry about.”
One of the artists she hired, Mi Tham, arrived in the United States in 2013. Originally from Burma, she and her husband took one of their two daughters to the border, through Thailand and eventually Malaysia, to escape the army who was attempting to conscript them in the genocide against their people. Their older daughter stayed with her grandmother in Burma.
Before they escaped, Tham worked as a seamstress while her husband worked as a teacher and a farmer. Despite taking refuge in Malaysia, her husband was ultimately arrested and jailed for two months before they were able to seek asylum in the United States. In the workshop, she wipes the tears from her eyes and shakes her head to say that no, they will never be able to go back to Burma. She holds up her hands, clutching crochet needles and yarn, as if she’s been arrested. “Go home—die,” she says.
When the store opened in 2014, de la Reguera hired Tham as Tembo Group’s first employee based on her experience as a seamstress. And although there is still a language gap, the two women have come up with a way to communicate without a lot of words. “Mi Tham, number one. Very good,” de la Reguera says. Both women smile in agreement.
Just a few feet away from Mi Tham is a young woman, Rebecca Zamani, an artist and designer. With a neat bun perched atop her head, she looks like a striking ballerina. She initially came to the United States from Iran following her husband. She studied art growing up and architecture briefly in a private university in Iran and again in Australia. In addition to her work at Tembo Group, she’s currently enrolled in courses to learn to speak English more fluently. She is known for her commissioned paintings, traditional Iranian art, and jewelry design. She can replicate nearly any style.
“I worked for a short time in Iran in architecture,” Zamani says. “I’ve worked about 20 years painting, and 15 years of teaching painting. I prefer design. Building design.”
Amina Khazie, who is also an Iranian immigrant, explains that in Iran, especially for girls, learning to paint and play traditional Iranian instruments is akin to youth in America playing sports. “The history of Iran arts, or Islamic arts, it’s huge,” She says. “It has a strong history of art. But I appreciate art here, as well. I think art here is huge . . . I went to School of Art in Tehran to study industrial design and then I wanted to come here for my master’s of art.”
“The government of Iran doesn’t allow people of certain religions to go to college,” de la Reguera says.
“There are lots of problems,” Khazie says regarding life for minorities in Iran. “There is a private school and a government school. Private school is so expensive and public school is very hard to get in,” she says.
Khazie, who is one of Tembo Group’s assistant managers and designers, couldn’t find work for seven or eight months in Maryland, but eventually found a job as a cashier in a clothing store. She found she was very tired when she came home from work every day. “I wanted to find a job in art,” she says.
With a degree in Industrial Design, and a master’s of art from Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis, Khazie has held on to her professional goals. “My hope is that someday, coming soon, I can design,” she says. “I would like to design some machine to help [clean] the environment. I’m very far from my dream, but I am finding it.”
During open hours, there is always at least one artist working on the premises. Tembo Group is fully stocked with a variety of handmade goods, many of which are made from recycled materials. The small shop is stacked with paintings on plates, glassware and canvas, headbands, handmade stationery, embroidered pillows, scarves, decorative jewelry, and about a dozen other items. The shop also offers BYOB painting classes throughout each month.
There are currently two full-time and four part-time immigrant and refugee artists and designers working at Tembo Group. In addition to adjusting to life and language in the U.S., many refugees also learn work culture in the states at Tembo Group. De la Reguera says it is also her job to teach her employees about the value of work ethic. “I wouldn’t say I’ve changed anybody,” she says. “But those that have been successful here have been successful because they had those qualities to begin with.”