Standing with Refugees: A Fair Trade Tradition

Simone Blanchard and Erin Mackey

Images flood newspapers and magazines of men, women and children fleeing war, poverty and persecution. People gather to listen and watch the latest updates from the media and a sense of change is palpable among the American people. The year is 1943. Decades have since passed and today, as we watch TVs and scroll through our smartphones, we know the all too familiar scene described here. For many people, they look at this and think that little has changed. And while that may be true in some regard, in others it is far from the case. From the dark days of World War II grew a movement of people driven to help those in need. Inspired by faith, these individuals and communities established organizations to serve refugees- to welcome the stranger. This not only led to the founding of Catholic Relief Services but those of our new and longtime partners.

Catholic Relief Services, formerly War Relief Services, supplies hot soup and milk to children in Paris.

Like many humanitarian organizations, CRS was founded in the midst of WWII to help refugees recover and rebuild their lives. While CRS now works in countries around the world, at the time the focus was primarily on the resettlement of war refugees from Europe. Similarly, our fair trade partner Serrv began their efforts as the “Sales Exchange for Refugee Rehabilitation and Vocation” to provide work for refugees in the aftermath of the war. Driven by their Christian faith, Serrv’s initial endeavors focused on assistance to refugees and later shaped the beginning of the fair trade movement. While they have come a long way from their first cuckoo clock from Germany, Serrv continues to support vulnerable workers around the world through their fair trade work. Ignited in the shadows of darkness, the fair trade movement shines a light on workers today and the growing need to support fair labor.

As we look at our world today, we see a need for our work and those of our partners more than ever. The war in Syria has led to the displacement of more than 11 million people resulting in the worst humanitarian and refugee crises of modern times. In 2016 CRS and our partners assisted 1.25 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the Middle East and Europe. As refugees move from country to country they become extremely vulnerable to exploitative labor practices. According to a recent report by the Freedom Fund, forced labor is now so widespread that it has become “the norm” for refugees, and an estimated 60 to 70 percent of refugee children work instead of attend school.

With the help of CRS, Hanadi, 41, sells beauty products and homemade perfume to a growing clientele in the greater Cairo area. “I feel like I can do anything and that nothing is impossible,” she says.

In response to these staggering, incomprehensible numbers, the business community is extending a hand and offering employment opportunities to people starting their lives anew. In recent days Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks, announced plans to hire thousands of refugees in dozens of countries around the world over the next five years. Additionally, Ted Barber, CEO of Prosperity Candle, shared his experience working with refugee women resettled by the United Nations federal and state programs: “Over the past 7 years our employees have not only enriched our lives in countless ways, they have substantially contributed to our company’s growth and success. We are incredibly proud and fortunate to work side by side with these women, many of whom have recently become American citizens and voted for the first time in their lives.”

From the early days of CRS and Serrv to current partners and businesses that are creating new opportunities for refugees, we continue to come together as a community of believers and create pathways to prosperity for the least among us.


LEARN: Read how CRS is assisting refugees.

ADVOCATE: Sign this action alert urging your legislators to protect humanitarian and development assistance.

PURCHASE: Support businesses, like Prosperity Candle, that employ refugees.