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This Chicago Floral Company Hired Refugees To Help Make Valentine's Bouquets

By Mae Rice in News on Feb 10, 2016 7:51PM

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Sifuni Emidi (right) and Lula Adhana, at work at Flowers for Dreams (Mae Rice/Chicagoist)

“I need a job,” Sifuni Emidi said Tuesday.

Emidi, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, arrived in Chicago by way of Tanzania five months ago. She spoke with Chicagoist in the West Town office-slash-warehouse of Flowers for Dreams, where she and Lula Adhana—a refugee from Ethiopia—are working for two days to help out with the company’s Valentine’s Day rush.

All told, the women will work two six-hour shifts apiece at the startup, which pays them $12 an hour, according to Flowers for Dreams co-founder Joseph Dickstein.

Working at Flowers for Dreams is Emidi’s first job in Chicago. She was a farmer in Congo, and Adhana ran her own business, a restaurant, in Ethiopia, but parlaying their skills into the Western job market has been challenging, in part because they don't yet speak English fluently.

Often, due to language barriers, it takes refugees four to six months from their arrival date to find work, according to Carmen Fleming, Workforce Development Manager at Refugee One, the Chicago resettlement agency working with both women.

Temp work might not be a romantic thing to get for Valentine’s Day, but for refugees in the midst of the resettlement process, it can be a key stepping-stone toward self-sufficiency in the U.S., Fleming said.

“Our main goal is to get people full-time stable jobs, but in the meantime…temp jobs are great experience. They get experience working with an employer, and on a schedule, and riding the train.”

For a for-profit business, Flowers for Dreams takes issues like refugee resettlement into account an unusual amount. The Chicago startup has two primary focuses: same-day bouquet deliveries and, more holistically, business with a social conscience.

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Another work scene from the Flowers for Dreams offices (Mae Rice/Chicagoist)

Every month since the company was founded in 2012, Flowers for Dreams has partnered with a new charitable organization, which receives a quarter of the company’s profits for the month. Especially recently, partnerships have been more than monetary. The company also becomes partner non-profits’ “spokesperson for a month,” co-founder Steven Dyme explained. “Our social media, our website—they're everywhere."

This past January, the team took the partnership program in a new direction, and partnered with Refugee One, one of the five refugee resettlement agencies in Chicago. (It's the largest one, according to Kim Snoddy, their assistant director of development; Snoddy says they're forecasted to receive 600 refugees in 2016.)

Previously, Dyme said, Flowers for Dreams had partnered with blandly agreeable causes—think puppy rescue.

This January, though, soon after Gov. Bruce Rauner tried to turn Syrian refugees away from Illinois, the team saw a chance “to make a statement to our own customers… that we are willing to take a tough stance, or a controversial stance, because we believe it’s right,” Dyme said.

The partnership with Refugee One became the company’s most immersive one yet. First, company employees went with Refugee One representatives to pick up a Syrian family of seven at the airport. They gave the family “tons of warm Flowers for Dreams apparel” and welcome bouquets, “just to show them that what they see on the news is not representative necessarily of the people [in Chicago],” Dyme said.

Flowers for Dreams also began a program, which will run throughout 2016, through which customers can order a welcome bouquet for a refugee family online. Refugee One workers then hand-deliver the bouquets to refugee families when they arrive at O’Hare—though that can take months, since orders have so far wildly outpaced actual refugee arrivals.

Furthermore, to help Refugee One’s clients find work, Dyme and his team also offered a four-hour training workshop for refugees interested in the floral industry. Six women attended the workshop, led by two Flowers for Dreams designers, which covered hand-tied bouquets, vase arrangements, and “body flowers,” as Dyme puts it: boutonni√®res and corsages.

Held in late January, the workshop was meant to prepare women for the seasonal work that crops up in the floral industry around Valentine’s Day.

“A lot of times that’s how people get into the floral industry,” Flowers for Dream designer Natalie Pappas, who helped run the workshop, told the Tribune. “That’s how I started.”

Flowers for Dreams needed its own seasonal workers, too. February, Dyme said, brings in three times the demand of a normal month, and Valentine’s week seven times the demand, roughly, of a normal week.

“It’s going to be really tough for these women to go sell these certificates,” Dyme recalls thinking. “In fact, we might be their easiest ticket to some opportunity.”

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The entrance at Flowers for Dreams, with some of the branded apparel the company has donated on display (Mae Rice/Chicagoist)

“I try to be as clear with general English terms as possible,” Dickstein, who directs operations at Flowers for Dreams, said after he had worked with Emidi and Adhana for about a shift.

“If not," he continued, "I'll just show them. That’s the easiest way. Because a lot of what they’re doing is working with our flowers. That [doesn't] need a ton of expertise or skill or experience.”

Dickstein wishes he could hire the women longer term—even just for more shifts during Valentine’s Day week.

“It’s tough,” he said. “We planned for Valentine’s Day months in advance... but as much as we’re able to help them as possible, we want to do that.”

Emidi too, wishes it was longer-term. She’s still looking for a full-time job. (Adhana, though, has found one: She was recently hired to work at O’Hare Airport, though she hasn’t started work yet.)

Still, Emidi was enjoying her time at Flowers for Dreams. “I like working for this company,” she said. “I like flowers.”

And though a few days of work seems like a small thing, Snoddy, of Refugee One, said that temp work like this can translate into opportunities down the road, too. “These women, just the fact that they went to a workshop and that Flowers for Dreams was impressed with them and wanted to bring them on, that’s something good they can carry to their [next] interview.”

It also shows they’re team players, since neither Emidi nor Adhana are into Valentine’s Day themselves. Emidi said that she didn't know about it in Congo, though it was celebrated in Tanzania. Adhana, who’s in her mid-50s, said that it’s celebrated in Ethiopia, but added that “that’s for young people.”