Alexis Safali, 60, said he was a lawyer and an activist in his home country of Rwanda.
Now, he said, he is an official asylum-seeker in the United States, working for an hourly wage as an assistant manager and artisan at Tembo Group, an unusual arts and crafts store in Fells Point that opened in May and is owned by Homeland resident Deborah de la Reguera.
Last week, Safali, who left his family in Rwanda in 2012 to attend a conference for lawyers in Miami and never returned, sat painting at a table in the store, where many of his pictures hang on the wall. Most are of animals and landscapes, including an elk that he painted from a photo of one that de la Reguera saw on a trip to Jackson Hole, Wyo.
But one is deeply personal for Safali — a deep river and trees.
"This I paint for me," he said, calling it symbolic of his advice to all people: "Whatever you do, go deep."
Watching fondly as he worked was de la Reguera, also 60. She hires international artisans, mostly refugees, asylum-seekers and immigrants who fled their homelands due to war, famine and genocide.
"It's a social enterprise with the mission of providing employment to artisans who recently came to the United States," de la Reguera said.
She recruits the artisans through religious organizations such as Lutheran Social Services, which finds housing and jobs for them and helps them get settled in the Baltimore area.
To Safali, she is much more than an employer.
"She knows why I am here," he said. "She knows my problem and she helps me. She treats me with respect. I feel that I took to somebody who is ready to listen."
De la Reguera had a long career in finance and marketing for International Paper and other companies. She has lived around the country, including in Cockeysville in the late 1970s. In 2001, she returned to the Baltimore-Washington area and worked as interim president for the Challenger Center for Space Science Education in Alexandria, Va.
She may be remembered locally in recent years as manager of the old Ten Thousand Villages store in The Shops at Kenilworth, in Towson. That store, which sold work by artisans from other countries at fair-market prices, closed in 2010. She then worked in another Ten Thousand Villages store, in Fells Point, until last year.
"Then, I opened this place," she said, referring to Tembo Group, located at 1706 Fleet St.
The Ten Thousand Villages store in Fells Point is still open. The difference between it and The Tembo Group is that Ten Thousand Villages is part of the national Ten Thousand Villages fair trade organization, which strives to pay fair market prices to artisans in developing nations for handcrafted items and then sells them to the public.
"I'm working with artisans once they're on our own shores," de la Reguera said. "We create our own products."
She said that as far as she knows, there are no other stores like hers in Maryland.
"I saw a need for employment for the refugees and asylum-seekers," she said. And as a craft maker herself since childhood, "I knew there was talent there."
Learning on the job
Safali is one of seven employees, three of them full time, who come from repressive, war-torn countries such as Myanmar (formerly Burma), Iran, Mongolia and Rwanda, the latter still remembered for its 1994 genocide. Employee schedules vary, "based on their life situations and our needs," de la Reguera said.
She said she pays them hourly wages — above the minimum wage — rather than commissions.
"I wanted them to have security," she said.
Hiring them has given her an education about their hardships, including their use of Baltimore's public transportation system to get to work. Safali, who lives in an apartment in Reservoir Hill, said it takes him two hours each way on buses.
"I understand now how we need to improve our transportation," de la Reguera said.
The 1,000-square-foot Tembo Group store is like a home away from home for the employees, who work at three tables, plus a folding table if needed. On one table sits one of de la Reguera's antique finds, a 1916 Singer sewing machine that still works. Tembo employees make everything from paintings of owls, Persian women and Buddhas to jewelry, stuffed animals, baskets made of garden hose, holiday pillows, landscapes made out of felt and purses with embroidered elephants. (The word tembo is Swahili for elephant).
Many of the items are made from recycled materials, such as silk ties, tea bags, horseshoe nails and recycled slate.
"We're very environmentally conscious here," de la Reguera said.
She makes the work experience as fun and educational as possible. She has taken her employees on short-distance field trips to see a local bakery, a water taxi in the Inner Harbor and to the Ten Thousand Village store, 1621 Thames St. She said she doesn't see the two stores as being in competition and added, "They often will send people in our direction."
In August, she held a crab feast at the store for her employees, many of whom had not seen a crab before.
"Everyone was wanting to touch it, but afraid to touch it," she said.
"It was spicy, but very good," said Safali.
Although there were no customers in the store on a recent Friday morning, de la Reguera said business has been good and that some of the customers have commissioned the artisans to do work for them. One Venezuelan customer commissioned a painting of Caracas with mountains in the background, de la Reguera said.
She swears by her employees, saying, "These people are great, considering what they've gone through."
Far from home
Sitting at a table making Christmas ornaments was Khin Mar Lar, 46, who fled Myanmar in March. She said one of her four brothers survived a 20-year prison term after the government commuted his death sentence, and three other brothers fled the country.
"I also run away," she said, explaining that for years, the government discriminated against her because of her Islamic faith, including not allowing her to work. She was self-employed, selling cosmetics, until she fled with her best friend and the friend's family. She arrived with no identification but a resolve that "I want human rights for human beings."
Khin Mar Lar was one of the first two employees that de la Reguera hired.
"This job I like," she said.
Safali said he is known to the Rwanda government as a dissenter. Although he thinks he is not on its radar, he is afraid for his family. He said he talks to them infrequently and only in careful, general conversations, so as not to draw attention to himself and bring trouble to their door. He also tries to send what money he can to them, but he admitted that for the most part, "I don't have it to send."
He said his family does not know what he does for a living now.
Safali said he started his job at Tembo Group with some trepidation, thinking that as a lawyer by profession, no one would be interested in him as an artisan.
"People buy my paintings," he marveled. "I am really amazed. I challenge myself all the time. I didn't expect to be a painter. But now I am."