At Sparrow Furniture, crafted wooden tables, bowls and art pieces fill the central Salem shop with a heavy, welcoming perfume of wood oils. They’re among the last pieces that the business will sell.
Since opening in 2017, over 30 refugees have taken on woodworking apprenticeships paired with English classes at the business, owned by Salem Alliance Church. Their custom work can be found in Salem businesses like the tabletops in Isaac’s Downtown, and in homes throughout the area.
Sparrow Furniture, at 1264 Broadway St. N.E., will close around the end of March so the church can develop a workforce program that can help more people at once and get people into the local workforce faster. Executive Pastor Linda Myers said the program typically took 12 to 15 months, and many of the refugees eventually found jobs that didn’t use woodworking skills.
“It became apparent that we needed to find basically a different marketplace or an additional marketplace where we could serve more apprentices and where we can get them out into a higher wage job more quickly,” she said.
Hundreds of refugees settle in Salem each year through Salem for Refugees, which was established in 2016 with help from the Salem Leadership Foundation and Salem Alliance Church and became an official resettlement agency affiliated with World Relief in 2021. They’d refer apprentices to Sparrow Furniture who moved from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria and other countries.
Though Salem is seeing more refugees each year, the woodworking program could only take a few apprentices at a time. The program included regular English lessons and help with job applications while they learned the trade.
“It’s more dangerous, and it’s more technical, skilled work. So we were in a place where we had a limited capacity to the number of apprentices that we could serve in the woodshop,” Myers said.
The church is closing Sparrow Furniture to launch Sparrow Workforce Development which will take several months to prepare.
The new program will focus on trades that are easier to transition into and have more opportunities in the area, and they’re considering options like custodial work, landscaping or food service. Woodworking could potentially be included in the future since they have the facility for it, Myers said, but it won’t be an option for now.
Ideally, Myers said they’ll have enough programs that the refugees can choose to follow their interests, and there will still be language classes as part of their paid work day while in training.
Luke Glaze, director of Salem for Refugees, said Sparrow Furniture helped people facing significant barriers to finding employment.
“We are so grateful that Salem Alliance Church plans to retain the heart and mission of Sparrow Furniture and apply it to a broader scope of workforce development and apprenticeship programs for refugees,” Glaze said
As of the closure announcement, there are two apprentices in the woodshop who Myers said are working to line up job offers with support from the church on their resumes and applications. One recently passed an entrance exam to work in security, she said.
Myers estimated that around 300 family members of apprentices have benefitted from Sparrow Furniture’s English classes and job training.
A staff member, Mohammad Ahmadzai, was working the front desk on Thursday, Feb. 1, the day Sparrow Furniture announced its closure on Facebook. He moved to Salem from Afghanistan, and said he didn’t speak much English when he started working in sales at the store a little over a year ago.
Ahmadzai keeps the store clean and organized, and works the front desk. He said he’s sad it’s closing. Though he expects his skills will help him land another job, he said will miss the English classes.
“It’s really important for all refugees,” he said. “Because they are working here, they are learning skills to get a better job in the future.”
Update: This story was updated to include comments from Luke Glaze, director of Salem for Refugees.
Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251.
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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.