Columbian refugee Rubiela hand stitches fine fabric for a Designers Workroom project. [Photo: Emily Frazier]
Patty Smith and Mary Morrissey are the co-owners of Designers Workroom, a local Memphis shop. Through their partnership with World Relief Memphis Employment Services team and through their own efforts, they have employed multiple refugee women and have seen the value in working hand in hand with the sojourners of Memphis. The two business owners are passionate about seeing change in their city and gave us the privilege of speaking with them about their involvement with local refugees.
 
Having successfully operated their own business since 1999, Patty and Mary are no strangers to hard work. Creating everything from drapes, to bed skirts, to custom paintings and interiors, the women of Designers Workroom offer their services strictly to interior designers and manage luxury materials. Their business is small, but their influence is anything but.
 
Aside from creating and designing custom interiors and unique paintings, the women of Designers Workroom are deeply compelled to help others and are passionate about social justice. For years, they have worked alongside local refugees, offering them employment opportunities and gladly welcoming the chance to personally learn and grow from women with backgrounds that are much different from their own.
Patty explained the skill and responsibility that the refugee ladies she works with have taken on. “We are in an interesting work environment here,” says Patty. “We are reaching out into the design industry, working with big projects, in expensive homes and businesses. This is a dying art… this hand sewing… all of these expensive fabrics, and art, and furnishings, are going through here. People see all of these beautiful things being made but not everyone can handle dealing with such expensive materials. These women can.”
 
Mary began to tell us of how she first learned of the refugee crisis and why she felt so adamant about getting involved. “Catholic Charities is how I initially heard about refugees. What really made me do it, though, was through seeing something on the internet about how World Relief was looking for local employers to hire some refugee women.” Mary made it very clear that she deeply values equality and giving everyone a fair shot. She went on to say that she’s already telling everyone she knows that “they should personally look into the refugee crisis and do their own research. Anyone who is trying to learn about the refugee crisis should personally spend time with them.”
 
We asked, “Why refugees? What benefit as a business woman did you see in hiring some of the refugee employees that you have?” Mary didn’t hesitate with her response. “Well for one thing they are such hard workers, but there is a totally different reason for why I do it,” Mary explained. “It expands everyone’s horizon to work with refugees. If you pay attention you learn a lot. So yes they work hard, but they also add so much more to our work environment.”
 
She went on to share about how she has been practicing English with Rubiela, one of the newly hired women, and how through this they have had many meaningful conversations and learned a lot about one another.
 
“We are family,” explained Patty. “Yes, there may be differences… either political, cultural, or religious. But boy… if anybody needs the other, everyone joins together as a family. Those differences don’t matter.”
 
She went on to tell us that, “The best thing about it for me, and I think all of us, is that we are connected by the fact that we’re women and we overcome: whether it’s language or learning to get along in a multicultural situation. We especially learned this when our family experienced a personal life crisis. We came together and were all there for each other. These women have families too with all of the problems that everyone else has. We have to be strong and count on one another.”
This mentality was echoed from Mary when explaining our duty as people. “We’re all human beings and need to help each other. We have to better educate ourselves. That’s the only thing that will help us better understand…There are others outside of our own group that bring so much to the table.”
 
Mary, Patty, and all of the women behind Designers Workroom represent a narrative not often heard. It is one that relays the truth in how valuable refugees have been to Memphis and the responsibility we all have to educate ourselves, get involved, and play our part in welcoming our new neighbors. Through a joyful work ethic and a more-than-meets-the-eye atmosphere, some incredible things are taking place in Designers Workroom. A sense of duty and an eagerness to learn seem to be the driving force behind the women there and the outcome is nothing short of extraordinary.
 
Written By Stephen Sneed
Photography By Emily Frazier