Furniture creates a foothold to a better life for Salem refugees

Boaz Twizere, a refugee from Uganda, works on spacing out wine staves to be made into furniture at Sparrow Furniture on Wednesday, July 14. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

In a bustling woodshop behind Sparrow Furniture off Broadway Street, people are sanding wine staves and other pieces of wood to build custom furniture.  

It’s a scene that may play out in other woodshops, but this is a nonprofit which helps refugees learn jobs skills and English as they settle into Salem.  

Boaz Twizere, a refugee from Uganda, said the program is teaching him how to read, write and speak in English.  

On July 14, he worked on spacing out wine staves, pieces of an old wine barrel, that would become furniture.  

The 20-year-old has lived in Salem for five years and said working at Sparrow will help him move on with his life in the future.  

Sparrow Furniture launched in 2017 to help refugees overcome barriers to employment.

In April, the store was awarded a $9,500 grant from the Willamette MBA Community Grant program to expand its workroom.  

Nyambalira Katabi, a refugee from Congo, works on sanding wine staves at Sparrow Furniture on Wednesday, July 14. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Jess Bashioum, who manages sales at Sparrow, said the program started as Salem was seeing a lot of refugees resettled in the area.  

“What happens when a lot of refugees come into the country is they get pigeonholed into kind of the minimum wage jobs and never progress much so we’re hoping to set them up, so they’ll be able to provide for their families,” she said.

Since it launched, Sparrow has employed 11 refugees from eight different countries, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Ukraine and Syria.

The refugees go through a 12 to 24 month apprenticeship program where they also get English tutoring.

Five of the refugees who graduated the program found full time work.

The nonprofit works with refugees who are eligible for SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps, which require them to be low-income.

Bashioum said one graduate went on to work for Trillium, which does woodworking on an industrial scale. Another became a butcher because he had experience in his home country.

Her background is in public health, and she lived in the Middle East for 12 years doing community development work. That’s where she met Sparrow’s founder, Luke Glaze. (Glaze is also the landlord for Salem Reporter’s office).

The pair worked together in Jordan and when Bashioum returned to the United States she came to work at Sparrow.

In the last two years the nonprofit has sold more than 1,000 pieces of furniture. Their handiwork can be seen in businesses like Basil and Board, Isaac’s Downtown, Broadway Coffeehouse and Masonry Restaurant.

They do a mix of custom work and items sold in the retail store located at 1264 Broadway St. N.E.

Bashioum said before Covid about 70% of their sales were custom. During the pandemic that flipped to 70% of sales coming through the showroom or the Salem Saturday Market, Thursday Market and other holiday markets.

Sparrow takes wood donations on weekdays from 8:30 to 4:30 p.m. More information is available on their website

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM – We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!