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Immigrant Creates Network to Help Assimilate Others

Art gallery showcases works of immigrant and refugee women.

When Marga C. Fripp moved here from her home country of Romania, she found it difficult to find information. She was a stranger in a foreign land and found it hard to make friends and figure out how to get help.

Two and a half years later, she has not only found her way, but developed an organization to assist other immigrant and refugee women and their families to overcome cultural, economic and linguistic barriers.

As Founding President of Empowered Women International Inc. (EWI), Fripp and a group of volunteers help these women achieve their full potential as citizens, activists and entrepreneurs. EWI employs the arts and creative processes in facilitating cross-cultural dialogue, enhancing multicultural education and vocational skills, and strengthening community and diversity.

To help facilitate this process, Fripp created A Woman's Story Gallery. This gallery is a network of creative immigrant and refugee women who can creatively express their vision, talents and skills through the arts. EWI's professional volunteers work with their beneficiaries to enhance the quality of their artwork, gain marketing and management skills in the arts business, and promote their arts in the market and the community at large.

Women artists and artisans from the immigrant and refugee communities donate to EWI 50 percent of the sale generated through our programs and events.

"We help women find their unique talents and show them how to translate them to economic prosperity," Fripp said.

A Woman's Story Gallery is located right in the heart of the historic Old Town Alexandria, on 1212 Prince Street. While the gallery building is off the beaten path, its colorfully draped front door is eye-catching and draws the viewer in.

Empowered Women International and A Woman's Story Gallery are currently presenting "If I Were A Bird," a new art collection of 28 original watercolor paintings of Pallavi, a native of India and a graduate of Sir J.J. School of Art in Bombay. The exhibition is open to public through June 30, Friday through Sunday, 1-7 p.m.

"This specific collection spans a time in my life when my two sons were very young. It was an exciting time, and I was engulfed in caring for my children. My paintings reflect the unconditional love a mother has for her children," Pallavi said.

Before she moved to this area, Pallavi had other exhibitions, but had gotten sidetracked. She met Fripp when she applied for a library card at the Alexandria Library where Pallavi volunteered. When Pallavi saw her occupation, she asked her about it, and they started talking about EWI. Fripp said that she had an opening for an exhibit in May and Pallavi took advantage of the opportunity.

"It was a very good opportunityóI wanted to start somewhere. I needed a boost and I got it," Pallavi said.

"THERE ARE MANY talented and educated immigrant and refugee women such as Pallavi who could share with us their vision, feelings and multicultural heritage, but they will never have the opportunity to explore their whole potential unless an organization such as EWI will provide them with the right environment to rebuild their confidence, find their creative niche, invest in their work and guide them to follow their goals and dreams," Fripp said.

In addition to the featured exhibit, there is also a collection of handmade jewelry and artwork created by other talented immigrant and refugee women.

Another artist, whose work is on display at the gallery, is Edith Graciela. She said that she first found out about EWI when she saw a flyer for their workshops.

"There were so many different ones, I couldn't decide," Graciela said.

She decided on one taught by a woman who teaches professional theater in Washington, D.C.

"It was a different kind of workshop, we talked about our feelings and how to know yourself; I loved the way she taught," Graciela said.

Since then, Graciela has become involved with EWI; some of her paintings are on exhibit at the gallery as well as a wedding dress that she made for dancer Daisy Birch's wedding.

Graciela is a woman of many talents; not only does she paint, but she is also a published author of poetry and has designed clothes since she was 14. She has also written several children's books. Because of all these talents, Graciela needed help getting organized; Fripp did that for her, getting her paintings framed and submitting the children's books to a publisher. Graciela now uses part of the gallery to paint and write and also helps Fripp when she needs it.

"I think it's a beautiful thing she's doing and I want to help," Graciela said. Her mother recently moved from Bolivia to live with her and both of their paintings are on exhibit at Panatier, a coffee shop in Del Ray.

While Fripp travels every day from Silver Spring, Md., and puts in long hours, she is happy to be helping others. She was used to helping people in her native Romania, where she was a journalist and an activist for women's rights. Her husband is an American who was serving in the Peace Corps when she met him. They moved to the United States when their second child had a stroke and required medical care.

"I became an immigrant overnight; it was very difficult for me to adjust," Fripp said. "The problem is that coming here there is no central place to find information. Everything is so new and so difficult. It's so hard to navigate the system."

Fripp said she tried to get a job, but couldnít find one so she decided to put her efforts into helping others.

IN ADDITION TO the art gallery, EWI organizes monthly training and workshops in the creative arts, marketing and business education. They have a Career and Cultural Orientation Center where EWI's professional volunteers work on a one-on-one basis with women beneficiaries helping them to establish individual and career goals, and guide them to accomplish their plans of success. Resumes, bio and interview preparation are also elements of support EWI provides for its beneficiaries.

"We're here to inspire and motivate," said Fripp, who gave the case of one client who just needed a little extra help. When this woman came over to the country, the only job she could find was cleaning houses. She worked hard and saved money to buy a van and start her own cleaning business. The problem was that she spent so much money on the van that she didnít have much money to advertise. When she called people on the phone, she was hard to understand because of her accent. Fripp said that they helped her create flyers and showed her how to use the internet.

"They were basic things that she couldn't figure out," Fripp said.

EWI also organizes groups of dialog and support, workshops and one-on-one meetings to assist immigrant and refugee women and their families transitioning to the United States culture and life. Volunteers advocates on behalf of its beneficiaries to different organizations, individuals and communities asking their support and guidance if the beneficiary cannot navigate the U.S. system due to language difficulties, lack of access or knowledge of resources.

EWI brings together women from multicultural communities to share their stories and challenges, and develop creative ways to overcome cultural, economic and linguistic barriers. Photography, self-awareness, theatre, gender and communication are just a few tools employed by EWI in facilitating women's need for communication and support group.

EVERY YEAR EWI offers the Evelyn LaPierre Award to honor an artistically talented and thriving immigrant or refugee woman who through her perseverance and dedication builds bridges between people, communities and cultures. EWI seeks the extraordinary in the lives of ordinary immigrant and refugee women, and strives to identify unique and inspirational stories of women who can earn a special place in the history of immigrant and refugee women of America.

The first recipient of the 2003 EWI annual award was Evelyn LaPierre, an 82-year-old, self-educated, Hungarian-American folk artist and single mother of three.

"Her art exhibition at the "A Woman's Story Gallery" in the Old Town Alexandria attracted broad interest and attention to women's artistic talents and skills, including congressional plaudits and a letter of recognition from the president of the renowned Pratt Institute of New York City," Fripp said.

Friends of the EWI is a group of activists, leaders, professionals and international women and men dedicated to the empowerment of immigrant and refugee women and their families. The group meets every second Thursday of each month at the EWI Office. The meetings address specific topics of dialogue that introduce immigrant and refugee's issues, international migration, and convey stories of immigrants who have an impact in their lives and communities.

"We have a very large community of volunteers; everybody is an expert in something. We hope to keep growing and once we grow here, we may open elsewhere," Fripp said.