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~ GAIA Goodness ~

Meet Marzia

GAIA Refugee Women - Marzia

One look at tiny Marzia and you know that she’s one of a kind. Her colorful clothing tells you right away that she’s a lighthearted soul with a fun personality. Her bright smile and sweet laugh draw you in with hopes of learning more. What she lacks in stature — she’s tiny! — she makes up for in laughter and heart.

Marzia was only 6 months old when her parents moved their family from Afghanistan to Pakistan to escape civil war nearly 25 years ago. Her parents and six of her brothers and sisters remain in Pakistan to this day. A sister has moved back to Afghanistan.

GAIA Refugee Women - Marzia

But Marzia arrived in the United States in March 2016 with her husband, Abdul; her baby daughter, Aamana; and her hearing-impaired mother-in-law, whom she helps care for. Two years later, Marzia and Abdul have settled into jobs and are expecting their second child.

Because her family was poor, Marzia attended school only through the third grade, when she needed to go to work sewing clothes. Her seamstress skills are put to good use at GAIA, where she works on our text pouches and tops.

GAIA Refugee Women - Marzia

Marzia’s innate joy shows in her attitude about her new life, her delight in her co-workers, and even her beautiful handwriting. It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when she was frightened and struggling, but she is honest about that recent history. It wasn’t that long ago — only a couple of years — that she and Abdul were unsafe and desperate to be selected to come to the United States.

It didn’t matter to Marzia that the only word she knew in English was “hi” or that she didn’t know where Dallas was on a map. She knew only that there had to be a better place for her and her family than Afghanistan. And she wasn’t wrong about that. 

GAIA Refugee Women - Marzia

Beaming, she says, “I am so excited to have a fun job. I work; I go to English classes. My husband is happy. Maybe our children will grow up to be teachers or doctors.”

Each of our refugee artisans has a unique story. Read more here.

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Meet Saja

GAIA Refugee Women - Saja 

In March 2003, troops from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Poland invaded Iraq. This first stage of the Iraq War, called Operation Iraqi Freedom, was meant “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.” A decade later, the country still raged with internal war. Cities were destroyed, the threat of deadly violence from Al-Qaeda was everywhere, and a young woman named Saja and her husband, Ahmed, decided to seek safety in Turkey. 

You wouldn’t guess that fact by looking at them. They are a peaceful, beautiful pair with two sweet children, a 5-year-old daughter named Jomana and a 3-year-old son named Ramy. Jomana will start kindergarten in the fall, and Ramy is into taking things apart. They are much like most other children you know, only they speak both Arabic and English. Saja and Ahmed arrived in the United States in December 2014, after living in Turkey nearly two years. 

GAIA Refugee Women - Saja

Temporarily in Turkey

 Saja’s story doesn’t involve a covert night-time border crossing or desperate years in a refugee camp, but that doesn’t mean her journey as a refugee has been easy. Though she and Ahmed were able to drive across the Iraq/Turkey border and set up house in Istanbul without trouble, neither of them spoke Turkish and they were told they would not be allowed to work. In Iraq, Ahmed worked as a photographer — sometimes with the press — and owned a banner-making business. After a few months in Turkey, “we ran out of money,” Ahmed says. “Life was really hard there.”

Luckily, Ahmed is a resourceful man who is quick with languages. He not only learned Turkish, but he found a way to earn money. He also sought asylum for himself and Saja in the United States as war refugees.  

After completing their application, they waited six weeks for a phone call, after which they traveled about six hours from their home in Istanbul for their first interview. By this time, Saja was nine months pregnant. Ahmed remembers that day well: “On September 25, they made a detailed interview with us — Why did you leave Iraq? What is your story. How many brothers and sisters you have?” he says.

“They needed to know if we had a good reason to leave. I told them the truth. ‘I am afraid. I was working with the press and with the Americans, and I am really afraid they will come and end my life.’” 

Two days later, Saja and Ahmed welcomed Jomana into the world. 

GAIA Refugee Women - Saja

The Waiting Game 

Saja and Ahmed were given a case number to follow on a website. He was told it would be months before a decision was made, but even so he eagerly checked the site every week. “After six months, I see that we have been selected!” he recalls. 

Saja says she looked at the site and she shouted with glee and cried. “We were excited,” she says, “but at the same time a little bit sad. I was thinking, “But when will we ever see our family again?’”

Another interview and many security screenings followed that happy day. Another six months pass before they find out that they would indeed be granted refugee status and move to the United States. After saying goodbye to their friends, Saja, Ahmed, and Jomana boarded a U.S.-bound plane. Their trip to Dallas included a six-hour layover in the Netherlands and a night in New York. They requested Dallas because they already had friends here and knew making a new life would be easier if they knew at least someone.

GAIA Refugee Women - Saja

Well and Happy in Dallas

Since arriving in Dallas, Saja and Ahmed have worked terrifically hard to establish a rich, full life. Ahmed works at Walmart and they’ve had a second child, Ramy. He is still taking photos and is interested in website design. The couple is saving for a house and dream of the day when they can buy a new car. 

 Though Saja didn’t work outside the home in Iraq or Turkey, she went to work in Dallas creating jewelry for Melt Goods before joining the GAIA team in January 2018. She is the only one of our refugee artisans who knows how to cut, sand, and polish the brass we use for our earrings. She says that someday she’d love to run her own jewelry business.

On the day that we sat down with Saja and Ahmed to talk about their story, they were headed to the beach in Galveston, Texas, for a weekend away with friends.

“It’s a good life,” says Saja. “We are happy.”

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Surprise and Delight: Our Refugee Artisans Share Their Blessings

Resettling as a refugee can be difficult. Refugees encounter prejudices and hostility from many directions. Some refugees move to the United States not knowing even basic English. Some arrive not knowing how to use an ATM or even a stove! On the flip side, some refugees arrive here after years as a working professional in their home country, only to have to start over completely — and usually not in their chosen professions.

Getting resettled is a process filled with challenges that people born and raised here can hardly imagine. It’s also a process filled with unexpected joys. Refugees arrive in the United States with assumptions of safety and freedom. They hope that their children will be able to attend school and that they will find work that sustains them. But there are things they don’t dare dream or know to anticipate — wonderful, unforeseen things.

We asked our refugee artisans to tell us about the surprises that have happened in their lives since they arrived in the U.S. Here’s what they said.

GAIA Refugee Women Catherin


When we first arrived, we were worried about everything, but each year that I am here, life gets easier and happier. I love my job and working with the GAIA team. Paula, Lauren, and Alyssa love me and love my kids — and that makes me happy!

(Read Catherin's story.)

GAIA Refugee Women Feza


First of all, I thank God for bringing me to this country, because I do not worry about war at all. Secondly, I am very happy that GAIA helped me with this job. Because of my earnings, I was able to buy a house, and am now living in my own home with my family because of your support. Thanks you so much, God bless you!

(Read Feza's story.)

GaIA Refugee Women Maria

“I didn’t expect to have a job that I liked — and I love my job at GAIA! And I didn’t expect for my children to receive such good education.”

(Read Maria's story.)

GAIA Refugee Women Latifa


“I’ve become a U.S. citizen! I am now able to travel to visit my friends and family, who I miss very much. My husband and I are also earning more money than I ever dreamed we would be able to.

(Read Latifa's story.)

GAIA Refugee Artisan Kholoud


“I never dreamed I would learn to drive a car! Now I drive all over by myself!”



“When my husband and I first got here, we were shocked by everything. We didn’t speak English, and we had a hard time finding jobs. I didn’t think we’d ever figure things out, but now we are doing well and looking forward to our future.”


GAIA Artisan Refugee Huda


“I honestly didn’t think I’d ever see my children again. I didn’t think that as a Syrian I would be able to leave the U.S. and return, but I was recently able to travel to see them after not being able to do so for seven years!”

(Read Huda's story.)


GAIA Refugee Women Bothina


“What’s surprised me most are the friends I’ve made. I never dreamed that I’d have so many friends. I didn't expect to be surrounded by the love and support that I have, especially where I work. I consider myself to be very lucky and blessed by God that I didn't have to try a lot of jobs before I found myself in a place that is full of kind, loving, considerate people.

(Read Bothnia's story.)

GAIA Refugee Women Manar


“We got a car as a gift, but — more than that — I started to practice driving!” 


GAIA Refugee Women Marzia


"Everything about coming to America has been a wonderful surprise!”

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The Story Behind Our New Baqa’a Tote Collection


Instagram continues to connect GAIA with not only fans of the brand, but also other companies and individuals who can help us grow our mission to empower refugee women and help them rebuild their lives. Our new Baqa’a collection of embroidered Totes is the latest example of the power of social media — who knew that scrolling through pretty photos really can help change lives!

Jordan Refugee Camp

Recently, two New York City-based journalists our founder Paula had previously connected with were visiting Jordan to research a project. While there, the women toured a women’s center in the Baqa’a refugee camp. (The camp is the largest in Jordan. It was established in 1968 for Palestinian refugees and people who left the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a result of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It remains a refugee safe haven, and it is plagued with extreme poverty and unemployment.)

Palestinian Embroidery

The journalists met with refugee women working in a United Nations-backed Women’s Programming Center, which was established as a sewing and embroidery center in the camp in the late-1980s and functions as a place for women and children to socialize and earn a living. The journalists were so impressed with their beautiful traditional embroideries that they shared the women’s handiwork on their Instagram accounts. But they didn’t stop there: They bought the entire inventory, providing income for 60 refugee women! They then put the word out on on Instagram that the embroideries were available for purchase through them, if anyone was interested. Paula immediately responded and, after several back-and-forth texts and photos, placed an order.

She didn’t know exactly how they would fit within the GAIA collection, but she knew they were extraordinary and that they fell right in line with the brand mission. When the pieces arrived we were so excited! They were even more beautiful than we’d imagined.

For GAIA refugee artisan trainer Bothina, the designs are even more meaningful. The embroideries are a traditional style found throughout the region, including Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. Bothina has memories from her childhood of learning how to do this type of embroidery from her aunt. 

Earlier this fall, GAIA released our new Ring Tote, a versatile style that can be carried not only as a tote but also as a fold-over clutch and a cross-body. Some of our first totes were of a velvety silk ikat; for our new releases we incorporated the Palestinian embroideries. GAIA refugee artisans in Dallas have combined them with canvas from Dallas-based Perennials (more on that collab to come) to create timeless accessories unlike anything else in our collection. Bothina sewed the first tote for the collection, and she’s excited to carry it.

When you purchase a tote from the Baqa’a Collection, you are receiving a one-of-a-kind piece touched by two refugee artisans living 7,000 miles apart. We're so proud to connect with women from around the world, and we're honored to be able to impact their lives.

Shop the GAIA Baqa'a Tote collection now.

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What Is a Hijab? Why Do Women Wear Them?

What Is a Hijab?

At GAIA we are accustomed to seeing women in hijabs. Huda and Bothina wear hijabs when they come to work in our office, and several of our other refugee artisans cover their heads in public as well. We’re around women who wear head coverings all the time. But we realize that many Americans are not and that, in fact, the who and why and where of the hijab, also called a veil, simply isn’t well understood by most people in the United States. So we decided to shed a little light on the subject, with the help of a site called Arabs in America, directed and sponsored by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.  

The Who and Why

Though there are Christian women and Jewish women and also Arab men who wear headscarves, this story is about Muslim women.

It’s a common misunderstanding that Muslim women are forced to cover their heads, and though Taliban law imposed the burqa (a head-to-toe dress that covers every inch of a woman, including her eyes) on Pakistani and Afghani women, a hijab is not the same thing and the Taliban is no longer in power.

What Is a Hijab?

Most Muslim women will tell you that covering their heads is a choice — and that they are proud to do so. In fact, many say that a headscarf or even a face veil gives them freedom and protection. It’s all a matter of perspective!

There are a variety of reasons a woman might elect to wear a hijab. Most wear hijabs for religious reasons. Some believe that God has instructed them to do so and wear it as a symbol of devotion. Others, however, don’t perceive a head covering as obligatory but wear it instead to express their Islamic identity and show their faith. There are other women who cover their heads as an expression of cultural identity and a challenge to prejudice. Some women wear it sometimes and don’t wear it other times.

We asked Bothina how she feels about wearing her hijab, and she told us, "When I am walking and wearing my hijab in the street or wherever I am, it's as if I am expressing how proud I am of my faith and the human being I am." (We love this explanation — it kind of blew us away!)

What Is a Hijab?

The Where

Muslim women cover their heads anytime they are going to be around men who are not part of their immediate family (think: husbands, sons, brothers, fathers). They don’t wear hijabs when they are at home with only their families or when they are with only other women in someone’s home. Anytime they go out in public, they will cover their heads.

The How

All hijabs are hijabs but there are other kinds of hijabs. Does that sound confusing? Let us explain.

The word “hijab” is simply the Arabic word for “cover.” It is used both as a general term for modest attire that includes a headscarf and as a certain type of headscarf. A hijab can be worn tightly or loosely.

What Is a Hijab?

The most common type of hijab is called simply a hijab, and that’s what you’re most likely to encounter in the United States. It’s a square scarf that covers the head and neck but leaves the face free. This is what the Muslim women who work with GAIA wear.

The shayla is another type of hijab. It is a long, rectangular scarf that is wrapped loosely around the head and tucked or pinned at the shoulders. It covers the head but often leaves both the neck and face exposed.

The khimar is a long, cape-like scarf that covers the head, neck, and shoulders and hangs to the middle of the back. The face is left uncovered.

What Is a Hijab?

A floor-length version of the khimar is called the chador. Worn with a khimar or other headscarf, the niqab covers the mouth and nose but leaves the eyes clear. Though Latifa doesn’t wear a niqab in her daily life in the United States, when she goes to visit her family in Tunisia she does. 

OK! That’s a lot, but we hope it has helped demystify head coverings. And if you have more questions, we encourage you to ask a Muslim woman about her hijab the next time you see one. There’s nothing like having a real conversation!

For answers to more questions about refugees, read Refugee Resettlement 101.

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Proud to Live in America

The second line of the Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

GAIA Refugee Women

At GAIA, we are always aware that a good life anchored by liberty and the pursuit of happiness is not available to all men and women. Before being resettled in more hospitable places, many refugees are quite literally running for their lives and the total absence of liberty and happiness. We’ve told the stories of a few such people — the refugee women who have resettled in Dallas with their families and are rebuilding their lives with our help — on our blog.

In honor of July Fourth, we asked some of our refugee artisans what “independence” means to them. Here’s what they said.

GAIA Refugee Women


To me, “independence” means being free to express your thoughts and mind, and being able to act upon your ideas, especially in the political realm. For me, being an American means being able to achieve your dreams.

GAIA Refugee Women


To me, “independence” means I can live free and not in a refugee camp. Being an American means that I can say the Pledge of Allegiance and vote for the president of the United States.



In my country (Burma), we have civil war, so we live with fear. We have no rights to do as we please. In the U.S., I have rights. I can become a citizen and vote. We all have equal opportunities and can get any job we want. 



Independence is freedom, and freedom is being able to express yourself. Being an American would mean that I could travel anywhere.



To me, Independence Day is Happiness Day. Living in the United States means many more opportunities — including the chance to study English!

 Curious about how refugees get to the United States? We break it down for you in Refugee Resettlement 101.

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GAIA Refugee Mamas Share Their Thoughts for Mother's Day


Mother’s Day is right around the corner, and at GAIA we have lots of mammas. Most of the refugee women who make our purses, pouches, and other accessories are also raising littles.

Though they come from all over the world, they share an extraordinary resilience, strength, bravery, and commitment to making a better life for their children. They also share a universal perspective: Regardless of a woman's cultural background, language spoken, country of origin, or religious beliefs, being a mother is a universal experience that transcends boundaries. 

We believe that moms make the world go 'round, and we know that the challenges all mothers face can be multiplied when a mom is displaced from her home and finding her footing in a new country. We also believe that sharing the joys and difficulties of mothering with one another is helpful, so we asked our refugee artisans and apprentices to tell us a bit about their experiences since coming to the United States.


GaIA Refugee Women Feza

 Feza, Congolese Refugee and Mother of Three

Being a mother in the refugee camp was difficult because we didn’t have money to buy our kids what they needed, and they were bored all the time. Here in America, if they need something, I am able to buy it for them with my earnings. In fact, I just bought a house with a yard! Plus, my kids are much happier now because they have more to do and can go to school. 


GaIA Refugee Women Bothina 

Bothina, Syrian Refugee and Mother of Two 

My job as a mother changed when the crisis in Syria began. I had to protect them and keep them safe both physically and psychologically. I had to be there for them, to be strong in spite of our circumstances. I am so happy that they are now getting to grow up in the U.S. We’ve been here a year, and it’s been incredible to watch them evolve. Now my challenge as a mother is making sure they are integrating into American culture while also staying connected to their Syrian heritage. 


GAIA Refugee Women Huda

Huda, Syrian Refugee and Mother of Three 

We have a very happy family. I tried to raise my three children to be loving and tolerant of others. Because of the conflict in Syria, I haven’t seen two of my children in more than four years. One of my sons is in Germany. My daughter is in Turkey with her husband and a little granddaughter, whom I have never met. I have applied for a green card and am waiting on that. It will allow me to travel to visit them. I am happy that my son, Tamam, and his family are here in the U.S. with me and my husband. I don’t know what I would do without them. (Editor’s note: Bothina is Huda’s daughter-in-law.)


GAIA Refugee Women Catherin

 Catherin, Burmese Refugee and Mother of Four

My children have many more opportunities here in the U.S. than they had in the refugee camp. In the camp, they couldn’t learn a lot, so it would have been hard for them to become what they want. But here, they can become anything if they work hard. Last fall, I became a U.S. citizen. I did that mainly so that my children — Bambina, 14; Basolus, 10; Christopher, 6; and Juliana, 2 — would be U.S. citizens and have even more opportunities. (Editor’s note: When a parent becomes a naturalized U.S. citizen, that parent’s children also become naturalized citizens, as long as the children are under the age of 18, have green cards, and live with that parent.)



Kholoud, Syrian Refugee and Mother of Six

After we fled Syria, we spent three years in Jordan. Only one of my children was able to go to school there. That was difficult, so I am happy now that all my children are in school. I love watching them learn and grow into the people they want to be. Being a mother can be overwhelming at times, of course, especially because Western culture and traditions are all new to us.



Gul, Afghan Refugee and Mother of One

I absolutely love being a mom to 2-year-old Amina. We love America, our family, learning English, and working! I am so fortunate that my own mother is here in the United States with us. She is deaf and we communicate through a sign language that we created on our own.


GAIA Refugee Women

 Narges, Afghan Refugee and Mother of Two

In Afghanistan, the schools are not great. The economy is not great. I am happy that I can raise my children here in the United States because I have big dreams for them! I want them to go to college and be doctors or engineers. Their opportunities for success are so much greater here!


GaIA Refugee Women

Izdehar, Syrian Refugee and Mother of Four

My favorite thing about being a mother is the perspective that it gives me on life. Having children helps me realize what’s really important in the world, and knowing that my children depend on me helps me stay strong when things get tough.



Esraa, Syrian Refugee and Mother of Four

The biggest thing for me is that motherhood has really helped me appreciate my own mother! (Editor’s note: Esraa is the mom on the left.)

Sarah, Iraqi Refugee and Mother of One

I feel like my role as a mother to Jenna, who is 3, is the most important role I will ever have. I believe that a loving and supportive mother can make the whole family strong. What's difficult for me right now is being a daughter. My mother is still in Iraq, and she is very ill. I can’t help care for her or even hug her. And I don’t know if I will ever get to do those things again. (Editor’s note: When we interviewed Sarah for this story, she could barely talk through her tears. Her heart breaks knowing that she may never see her mom again.)

 We wish these mamas — and all mamas around the world — a Happy Mother’s Day!


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Meet Maria

GAIA Refugee Women - Maria


Maria Sho is the very definition of the word “sprite.” Tiny, cheerful, and mischievous, she has a twinkle in her eye and a sly smile on her face. And though she speaks very little English, it’s easy to tell she has a quick wit and sharp mind.

Now 40, Maria arrived in the United States with her family in 2009. She joined the GAIA family shortly thereafter, and eight years later is still sewing for us from her home in Northeast Dallas.

Maria and her husband, Jowah Ni, fled Burma for a refugee camp in Thailand in 1996. (Burma is a republic in Southeast Asia also known as Myanmar. Killings, torture, rape, landmines, and forced labor of ethnic minorities by the Burmese military regime are not uncommon.) They lived in the camp, on the border of Thailand and Burma, with tens of thousands of others for 13 years. There, Maria became a mother to their three boys — Sanay, Laurie, and Joseph.

She remembers life in the camp as extremely difficult. She had no work, and Jowah spent much of his time away from the camp, fighting with the Karen National Liberation Army. (The KNLA has been fighting the Burmese government since 1949 for the self-determination of the Karen people of Burma. The Karens are an ethnic minority in Burma.)


GAIA Refugee Women - Maria


A Fresh Start

When Maria recalls the day an NGO group came to her camp to ask people to apply to live in the United States, she claps her hands and laughs. She didn’t hesitate to put her name on the list, saying, “I thought, ‘Maybe life is better there than in the camps.’”

And she wasn’t wrong about that.

After thorough mental and physical vetting by various agencies — there are multiple interviews and health tests before a refugee is given clearance to travel to the United States — she arrived in Dallas.

She and Jowah were worried at first. “When I looked around, I didn’t know what to think,” she says. “Jowah thought it was difficult here. We didn’t know where to go and what to do. We didn’t know who to ask for help.”


GAIA Refugee Women - Maria


A Happy Ending

The International Rescue Committee, an organization that helps refugees resettle and rebuild their lives, introduced Maria to Catherin, another Burmese refugee who relocated to Dallas earlier that same year. The two women became like sisters, sharing their struggles and finding reasons to laugh together as their children also became fast friends.

Catherin was already working with GAIA, and soon Maria joined our team as well. Today, Jowah works in a restaurant, clearing tables and washing dishes. Their three children — now 20, 15, and 11 — are happy and healthy. They all inherited their mother’s hilariously dry sense of humor and have been known to prank us when we call.


GAIA Refugee Women - Maria


Maria says she is never homesick — a sentiment not often expressed by the refugees who work with us. She says is incredibly happy to be living in a safe place and to have the opportunity to work to take care of her boys. “I never want to go back,” she says.

Maria and the other refugee artisans who work at GAIA are why we exist. They inspire us to work hard and remind us to always be grateful.

To read Catherin’s story, go here. To learn more about about refugee resettlement and how you can help, go to

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