Centers created by Chattanooga woman help African refugees reclaim their lives

photo Diana, 37, makes stuffed animals for Amani. A member of the Hutu tribe, she was forced to flee her home in Burundi when the conflict between Hutus and Tutsis exploded.
photo Becky Chinchen, who grew up in Chattanooga, is the founder of Amani Ya Juu. She now lives mainly in Nairobi, Kenya, and her daughter, Joanna Vaughn, runs the shop in Chattanooga.

If You GoWhat: Christmas in July.Where: Amani ya Juu, 420 S. Willow St,When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Today-Saturday.Information: 423-531-6496.

NAIROBI, Kenya - The traffic is thick and the air is heavy with asthmatic pollution during most of the working day, but behind the carved wooden sign and the quaint iron gates of the Amani ya Juu complex, the drive is lined with tissue-paper bougainvillea blossoms that give the first hint that the air is sweeter and cleaner inside the complex.

It's a real-life metaphor for the lives of the women who work there.

Stone paths guide shoppers and visitors across a lawn scattered with the Christmas colors of fallen avocados and poinsettia blossoms. In aprons made in the Amani complex, the cafe staff smiles frequently and serves a cosmopolitan menu of cappuccinos, fresh and exotic salads and homemade baked goods.

Tables are filled with businessmen -- European, Indian, Kenyan -- and lunching mothers with children who play on the nearby playground.

In the complex's three-story building, melodic female voices can be heard singing, laughing and discussing the Amani orders in diverse tongues; sometimes you can hear praying. The women mostly are refugees, some brutalized in bloody African conflicts; some who saw family members die; some who thought they might die themselves; some who, at one point or another, thought it might be better if they were dead.

With their hands, the women are making crafts, handling bookkeeping and running a business that makes clothing, home items, handbags, stuffed animals, clothing, jewelry. These items are sold at Amani centers in five African countries and in stores in Washington, D.C., and Chattanooga -- where a woman who was raised here first came up with the idea for Amani ya Juu, which means "peace from above" in Swahili. Starting today, the Chattanooga store is having a Christmas in July sale with products made at the various African centers.

"We may be sweltering in 90-degree heat here in the South, but our sisters in Kenya are cozying up for an African winter," a flier for the sale says.

Chattanooga-born Becky Chinchen was living in Liberia with her husband and four daughters in 1996 when she was forced to flee from the country's civil war, a refugee herself who eventually landed in Nairobi.

"I went through the emotional roller coaster experience of loss," she said in Nairobi. "The feeling that life comes to a halt, the feeling of being a lesser being because life is in such limbo due to the inability to plan or live a life of purpose, the feeling of being a burden to society as you have to depend on others for shelter and food, the loss of dignity when you live at the mercy of others for your livelihood, your mere existence. Everything was unpredictable, uncertain, unknown."

While working through her own feelings of loss and displacement, she had the vision for Amani ya Juu and, like the storefront on South Willow Street in Chattanooga, the African Amani center started modestly.

"Seventeen years ago, Amani started in my living room [in Nairobi]", said Chinchen, "then moved to a loaned out garage space where we offered skills training in sewing, leadership mentoring, care support through counseling, and high-quality production of home furnishing items."

Amani ya Juu now has centers in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Liberia as well as the U.S. locations; another store is being planned for Chicago. Items also are sold from the website. The centers operate under fair-trade regulations, which ensure that money from the items makes it back to the women who actually produced them. At Amani, the refugee women are their own bosses and act as vendors at Amani.

Fleeing burundi

Diana, 37, crafts the stuffed animals at Amani. Like the other women at the Kenyan center, she doesn't want to use her last name. Even in the safety of Amani, fear of retaliation, of "being caught" runs deep.

Diana's family was Hutu living in Burundi when the civil war between the Hutus and Tutsi tribes in neighboring Rwanda spilled over into her country. Rwandan forces imprisoned her mother, a government employee, and Diana, newly married and a young mother, fled with her husband and lived in the forest of the Congo. She is not sure for how long.

"I was crying every day," Diana says through tears, "I did not know where my parents were."

But she knew she needed to survive and eat for her breastfeeding infant.

"I mean I ate so many things -- snails, snakes," says Diana, "I ate so many things. So many things."

Finally, with help from a Catholic mission, Diana and her family were taken to safety in Nairobi. Once there, she learned that her father was dead; she's not sure how or why. Her mother was in a Rwandan prison; she went in HIV negative, came out HIV positive. Rape of female prisoners is common. Her mother is now dead.

Diana found out about the Amani ya Juu center through her Nairobi church.

Though the center helps Diana generate income, she still struggles. Her husband has not found much work in Nairobi, and Diana uses the funds she earns from her stuffed animals to try to pay her children's monthly school fees. She bought a sewing machine for her house so she could take on extra work.

In the center, Diana is a smiling and laughing presence. She works alongside Tutsi women.

"Yes, the Tutsis are here," says Diana, "but the spiritual atmosphere that is here does not bring out the hatred that I felt."

Fleeing Eritrea

In a business-bob haircut and a pinstriped suit, Zed, 38, looks like the resident office manager at Amani ya Juu. She manages distribution and works on the hand-sewn embroidered goods such as quilts and pincushions. She is articulate and professional and has learned to speak excellent English through the English as a Second Language classes held at Amani.

She has never married and in 1998 was forced to flee Eritrea, a tiny country just north of Ethiopia on the Horn of Africa, during the war between the two countries. She left with her younger brother, whom she cared for until he was resettled to Canada. Now, she is alone in Nairobi, but Amani has helped her see a future for herself.

"I start to plan," Zed said. "How to manage my money. My life. And just to help myself because no one was taking care of me."

For Zed, who has a college degree in animal sciences and would like to use it, the ability to plan a vision for life was taken away when she was a refugee.

"You can not think of development or improvement," Zed says, "You say, 'Tomorrow I will be somewhere. Tomorrow I will be somewhere, tomorrow I will be somewhere.' And then 13 years has gone by."

Her goals -- and she has many -- are dependent on finding stability in her life, something she doesn't feel she has achieved.

"If I was settled in my life," says Zed, "I would like to serve in my community. I want to have my own life, own projects, my own ministry to others and teach what I learn at Amani."

But right now, Amani is all she has.

"My family is Amani and Amani is my family and my home," says Zed.

Contact Millie Smith at rachel or on Facebook at millicentsmith.