Today is World Refugee Day. I had forgotten and did a post on how my life is like a box of crayons. The irony of this hit me.
My life is like crayons because of privilege and choice. A refugee can’t even use that analogy because there is no choice. They leave because they have to. 43 million people leave their homes and countries and begin the arduous process of rebuilding.
Today I have a passport and a home, I have friends and family who have never had to flee any country, I have children who are safe and clothed and when I birthed them I had good prenatal care, ensuring as healthy a start as possible.
Today I get up and eat a healthy breakfast, walk to pick up a rental car and head off to a job that pays well. All this is what the refugee longs for and looks for. In honor of world refugee day I am taking down the post on my “Crayon Box” life and posting on a community that through hard work and resilience has made this transition and built a new life. Thank you for reading!
What do immigrant dreams and Hollywood have to do with your manicure? Turns out – almost everything!
Whether the north shore of Boston, Phoenix, or Cambridge, when I go get a manicure or pedicure I am met at the door by savvy, professional Vietnamese women.
They usher me in and authoritatively say“Pick your color!” I am suddenly no longer in control; instead it’s Linh or Mai or Minh who will dictate where I sit, where I stand and when I’ll leave. They know their business and they do it well.
Like any immigrant story, the story of Vietnamese and nail salons is one of ingenuity, resilience and hard work. It also has the fairytale element of a movie star and a dream.
It begins with Tippi Hedren, an actress best known for her roles in Alfred Hitchcock films. Beyond her stage career Tippi was committed to international relief. She was working with Food for the Hungry in a refugee camp in California when several women, refugees from Vietnam, admired her manicure. An idea was borne that she brought to her manicurist: Could the manicurist come to the camp on weekends and teach women this skill?
She could and she did. Through this seemingly small act, a business and dream was born. The skill set allowed for employment when families were desperate for income and within a short time Vietnamese refugees had both started and captured the market of affordable nail care. Until Tippi Hedron and the women taught by her manicurist came onto the scene, manicures were an unaffordable luxury, limited only to those who had wealth and time.
A school in California called the Advance Beauty College, teaching manicuring, cosmetology and massage, has graduated over 25,000 students. Clients looking for a bargain benefit from the discounts offered as students work on their nails, able to clock in the hours needed for a license from the state. While not only Vietnamese attend, they make up the largest percentage of students in the school profile.
It is a classic case study on the igenuity of refugees and immigrants. As I think about nail salons, looked on by most as merely a “service” industry, I am amazed and humbled at their skill, business savvy and ability to build a small empire. Indeed, my manicures will never be the same.
It’s also a good example of the principles of community development. Too often instead of teaching skills and working alongside a community, outsiders dictate to the community what they should do and how they should do it. Taking advantage of an opportunity and learning this skill gave a displaced refugee community a livelihood and a way to start over after dramatic and traumatic events changed their lives. All of this was focused toward building a new life and a future. Would that all could find their niche spots as they ride the waves of grief, loss and renewal in a new world.