Win Htay gives a glimmer of a shy smile as she holds up a delicate, hand-crocheted yarmulke. The 28-year-old had never heard of a yarmulke until she came here four years ago, resettled by HIAS and Council Migration Service of Philadelphia as she fled political and military repression in Myanmar.
Nor did she expect that crocheting the round head coverings would become a modest source of income. Over the past few months, the National Museum of American Jewish History purchased 11 of her kipot to sell in its store.
Htay has a personal agent to thank for the connection, longtime HIAS volunteer Resa Rudney.
Rudney began mentoring Htay and her husband, Aung Thwin, shortly after the couple arrived in 2008. She went to their South Philly apartment to teach them English vocabulary words, drop off donations and help with whatever else they needed.
During a visit, she noticed Htay crocheting a scarf. The next time she came, she brought her yarn to make more scarves, which she sold at her shul, Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood.
This fall, Rudney happened to notice hand-crocheted yamulkes in the museum gift store. Maybe, she thought, the store managers would consider selling similar products from a local artist. To her delight, retail operations director Kristen Kreider agreed to look at Htay's work.
Even though Htay isn't Jewish, Kreider said, her story fit perfectly with the museum's theme of immigrants finding opportunity in America. Plus, Kreider said, she always tries to support local businesses and "this felt like it was a more personal level, more direct, really going right into her pocket and not a manufacturer."
Htay studied a sample Rudney brought her and came up with a copy within two hours, similar, she said, to how she first taught herself to crochet as a teenager by looking at a finished scarf. She made six for Rudney to take back to the museum. Kreider purchased all but one and commissioned another batch.
When she brought back the payment, Rudney said, Htay refused to take it at first. She kept saying, "It's too much," Rudney remembered. Even after four years here, Rudney said, the couple hasn't gotten used to the concept of "ask and you shall receive."
"They don't ask for anything because in their culture if they asked, the answer was always no," said Rudney, a native of Jackson, Miss., who coordinates immigration outreach from her synagogue, which maintains a warehouse of donated furniture, clothing and other goods.
Rudney said she hopes this small introduction to entrepreneurship will help Htay realize that "she's worth something and her talents are worth something. She can do something that people will pay her money for."
She didn't get the chance to experience that in Myanmar, where the military regime was waging an ongoing offensive against ethnic groups seeking greater autonomy. She was a schoolgirl when soldiers came through her village to assert power and commandeer workers.
"If they see a woman, they rape," she said. Or, "you can die. So we run in the jungle. After they stopped fighting, we would come back."
Her father, a rice farmer, died from a fever he contracted doing forced labor as a military porter, she said. Her mother died shortly after from complications of childbirth. The baby didn't survive either.
Htay had just finished school in 2000 when she left the village, on foot, to seek safety in a refugee camp in Thailand with her brother, uncle and other relatives. It was there that she met and married Thwin.
Though Htay and her family are Buddhist, she said it makes her happy to crochet a garment used in Jewish prayer. She's even gone to temple with Rudney.
Htay and Thwin's 2-year-old daughter, Wendy, attends pre-school at Society Hill Synagogue on a scholarship while she takes a bus to Northeast Philadelphia for daytime English classes.
HIAS workers have also stayed in touch with the family, occasionally asking them to interpret for the more than 200 Burmese refugees they've resettled in this area.
Htay dreams of a career not as an artist, but a nurse. She trained to work in a clinic at the refugee camp in Thailand before immigrating here.
The link between her story and the Jewish community is poignant, said HIAS director Judi Bernstein-Baker.
"Here is a museum that devotes so much to the idea of the immigrant experience, the need for religious tolerance, the quest of the Jewish people for that kind of freedom," Baker said, "and here we have a modern-day person who's had to flee from persecution connecting up to this experience in an artistic way."