"I don’t want to forget the people there or forget what people are going through," Becca Stevens tells PEOPLE

By Amy Eskind
August 10, 2017 09:50 AM
Peggy Napier

Beside glorious vineyards and lush countryside on the Greek island of Evia, a barbed wire fence encircles a dusty, barren former military encampment where 1,000 Syrian refugees are housed in metal containers. People walk slowly at the Ritsona camp, with few places to go, and hopelessness fills the air as no one knows when or if they can go home or be permanently resettled. Yet nine women have set to work on two looms, weaving mats with red, black, silver, orange and lime green threads. Not really threads. Cloth from life jackets worn by refugees as they fled Syria. And they are not just mats. They are welcome mats, from people who desperately need welcoming.

The Welcome Project was the brainchild of Becca Stevens, 54, a Nashville priest, wife of country singer Marcus Hummon and mother of three sons. For 20 years, Stevens has helped women who have suffered trafficking, violence and addiction come in off the streets. She offers temporary housing, help getting clean and sober, a chance to complete education, and, in many cases, help regaining custody of their children. She is committed to offering the women a substitute for prostitution – meaningful wage-earning jobs. Because their past often deters employers from hiring them, she founded Thistle Farms, a social enterprise that employs the transforming women. They make scented candles and beauty products with the label “Love Heals.” Eight of the candles are now sold in all Whole Foods stores, and Thistle Farms is expanding so fast it has recently moved into a larger manufacturing space. The popular Thistle Stop Cafe in Nashville is reopening after a complete renovation and expansion. Stevens’ impact has also gone around the country and around the globe in dozens of sister economic empowerment programs for women.

When she heard about the plight of the Syrian refugees, she was spurred into action. “I saw a video of the people crossing that 4.1 miles of treacherous sea, and heard the news reports about so many people drowning, and people getting to Lesbos and how horrible the conditions are, and how it was overwhelming, the genocide going on in Syria,” she says. She came up with the idea of teaching the women in the camp how to make something out of the life vests. “They’re such a powerful symbol,” she says. She planned to pay the women for their work, just as she does in all of her other ventures.

She gathered a team of women to figure out the logistics, met Ann Holtz, a weaver in North Carolina who was willing to teach, and in April they traveled to Greece. They were surprised by what they saw: people sleeping late with not much to occupy their time, sauntering about, living on rations and feeling hopeless. The air smelled of garbage.

Stevens and her group came to offer meaningful work and hope, but they were met with a succession of obstacles. The camp doesn’t allow employment. And the women didn’t know if they could trust this priest – was she yet another person with false promises?

Stevens and her band were not deterred. Abi Hewitt, director of the Thistle Farms Global Program, met a refugee woman who had taught herself English, and together they went door-to-door door-to-door to the metal container-homes in the camp on a recruiting trip. Some of the women spoke Kurdish, some Arabic and a few had taught themselves English. They convinced eight women to join them.

Ryan Camp

Stevens invited the women to sit in a circle, something she does at Thistle Farms every day. Through interpreters, she asked them what they wanted. “They want the same thing every woman wants – I want to do stuff for my kids, I’d like to get a new hijab,” Stevens says. “One of the funny things is we brought gift bags for all of the women when we got there, and the first thing they said is, ‘Do you have any mascara?’ I didn’t even think about bringing mascara. We brought healing products for skin, we brought nail polish. That makes sense to me that they would want eye liner and mascara. Okay, next shipment we’re going to send some eyeliner and mascara! Because you still want to feel beautiful in the middle of a refugee camp.”

She also asked them to share their stories. “They talked about the day they decided to leave,” Stevens says. “They could tell that story, heading out, and they did talk about how those life vests were a symbol of oppression in many ways. It wasn’t a symbol of freedom. One of the women talked about the very first time she went and made it through to Turkey to get to Greece. They charged her 180 euros for the first life vest, and then the boat didn’t even make it. She had to buy another vest and another vest. It was on the fourth time that she finally got it.”

The women talked about paying smugglers for vests that were not delivered, and about others who received warn out vests that pulled people under the water and drowned them.

Stevens explained how powerful it would be to take those hated vests and all it stood for and turn it around. “‘We take these that have been a symbol of oppression and difficulty and have caused all this trauma, and let’s rip them up and create something beautiful, as a sign of hope for you and your family,’” Hewitt recalls Stevens telling the women. “And they were all like, ‘Yes, I’m in.’ The Kurdish women said their grandmothers were weavers, and they were proud to learn. These are capable people. These are people who had worked before, they want to work,” Hewitt says.

Ryan Camp

Then Stevens and her team had to gain the trust of those on the ground to secure the discarded life vests. With the help of Lighthouse Relief and I AM YOU, organizations that were already working in Greece, they finally got the vests.

The women got right to work.

“It only took them a little while of stripping them and cutting them up and starting to weave and they were like, ‘Oh, we’re taking this really scary, traumatic experience, and we’re taking control over it and turning it into something that’s healing,’” Stevens says. The weavers are comfortable now on the looms, Stevens figured out a way to pay them – by “donation.” Additional refugee women in the camp heard about the project and showed up to volunteer tearing the life vests into strips for weaving. As shipments arrive in Nashville for sale at Thistle Farms and on the web site, the program is already expanding – they will soon be hiring 10 more women.

The thankful refugee women rolled out the proverbial welcome mat for their American guests using what they had to offer and some ingenuity. In the alleys between their make-shift homes, old plywood with a piece of cloth on top served as a bench. “So they could say, ‘Come, sit!’ And you’re sitting outside this metal container on a piece of plywood, but they’ve made it welcoming,” Stevens says. A half a dozen families also combined their rations of chicken and flat bread and spaghetti to make a feast in their honor.

The hope is that people all over the world will buy their weavings. The mats are waterproof and durable and come in two sizes, priced at $85 and $200. No two look the same. Placed on display, it’s meant to be a statement piece. Buyers are posting photos of themselves standing on the mat with #lovewelcomes. “It is about buying the mats, but it’s also about welcoming people,” Hewitt says. “How would we want to be welcomed, you know? Really think about the word welcome. What does that really mean?”

Giving the refugees access to money gives them freedom to shop, and make some simple decisions for themselves and their children about the clothes they wear and the food they eat. “You’re not the victim all the time,” says Hewitt. “And that’s what they want. They want to live a normal life. They want to be able to make decisions that we take for granted every single day.”

Ryan Camp

The healing comes full circle. Regina Marlowe, one of the first women who Stevens took in off the streets back in 1997, is now co-directing education and outreach efforts at Thistle Farms, and went with Stevens and Hewitt to the refugee camp. She could relate to the feeling of losing everything “and having no thought of which way to go next.” she says. She shared her story with some of the women, and asked the doubters to give it a try. “You’ve got a purpose, you’ve got a reason to get up in the morning,” Marlowe told them. “To see their faces after the first welcome mat was done, those women were WOW!,” she says. “They were lit up, and they were eager to do the next one. To watch those women come to life, it was beautiful.”

Stevens hopes to sell a fortune of welcome mats to sustain the women of Ritsona. “It’s an extraordinary woman who one day wakes up in Aleppo and realizes the mosque is gone, the school is gone, my grocery store is gone, two of my neighbors are gone, and she decides that day she’s going to become a refugee with her children,” she says. “That takes extraordinary, extraordinary courage.”

Back home, she tasked her Thistle Farms team to handle selling, shipping, quality control, staffing issues, wiring money back to the camp, troubleshooting and expansion. “For them to feel like they’re helping Syrian refugees raise their children and find stability and hope, that gives them meaning and depth,” Stevens says. “It gives me meaning.”

And that stench in the camp? “I’m still smelling it,” she says. “It can go to your heart. I don’t want to forget the people there or forget what people are going through. I want to keep smelling, remembering and keep doing this work.”

“It’s a very extravagant way to live,” Stevens says. “Loving people.”