Smile Politely

Three Spinners, a folktale turned non-profit

We’ve all seen the heartbreaking images of Syrian refugees, whether they are fleeing from their country or their bodies and families being ripped apart by a civil war. Imagine having to leave behind family, most all your possessions, your job, your language to come to a place where the people look different, sound different…to a place where you’re not even sure you are welcomed. I often wonder what I, a stay-at-home mom, can do to help. How can I help someone across the world? Well, across the world is coming here, to C-U. 

Three Spinners is a local non-profit that provides a source of support for newly resettled families. It was founded by Alex van Doren, Meagan Smith, and Timothy King, and they are working with other local organizations to establish Champaign-Urbana as a recognized resettlement city for Syrian refugees. Van Doren says that “there’s already a robust community of refugees from places like the Congo and Guatemala…the cost of living is cheaper than Chicago, as well as support from the university community and the ECIRMAC refugee center…it just makes sense.” Three Spinners also has a connection and support with the university community, especially the School of Social Work. According to van Doren, “ we have them on call for guidance and help.”

Van Doren recalls the video that made her aware of the crisis in Syria, about children who couldn’t get the supplies and deliveries they needed to survive. Together with friends she collected food and clothing. It was after that she decided that something more permanent and long term needed to be done. She “didn’t want to stand idly by and do nothing.” So together with two of her friends, she officially started Three Spinners in January of 2016. As a literature scholar, she began reading Syrian works and came across the story of the Three Spinners. “The three of us read it and knew right away that that was it,” the name of our organization. You can read the folktale here.

Currently, C-U has no Syrian refugees though there are many Syrian families that call C-U home. There are, however, two families who have been approved to resettle here and are currently waiting in Lebanon for final approval. The Refugee Center (ECIMRAC) handles the legal aspects of living here for all refugees, so Three Spinners is going to focus on the “daily, day to day tasks like helping them find a grocery store, or provide laundry services…perhaps dry clean their suit for an interview…” Things like that seem so small but are actually so helpful and meaningful to someone moving to a new country. 

Along with providing these humanitarian services they also plan to set up a “store”, which already has 15,000-20,000 donated articles of clothing. This will be incredibly helpful for these families, since most come into the country in debt. She went on to explain that the US gives each refugee a one time stipend of about $1,200, however they must pay back their travel expenses. With airfare tickets ranging anywhere from $700- $1000, not much is left for sustainable living. Since the families will be focusing on finding employment and learning English, it’ll alleviate the extra stress and financial burden to be able to come into the store and pick out a winter jacket free of charge. Van Doren explained that though they will be catering more towards refugee and immigrants, the store’s services will also be open to the wider community in need. 

Three Spinners has made a personal goal to raise enough money to cover at least six months of rent, if not a year, for the location of their store. With multiple clothing and food drives under their belt, they are using the funds from their next fundraiser to help pay for the operation costs of the store.

Next Thursday April 27th, Three Spinners will be hosting a silent auction at Pizza M in Urbana from 7-9 p.m.. The auction will include lots of art from local artists, a bicycle from Neutral Cycle, roller derby tickets, gift certificates from yoga studios, stores, and more. Van Doren says, “This silent auction will be crucial to meeting our goal, and we would very much appreciate your participation.” Yet she encourages you to come even if you can’t buy anything in the auction as this will be a “cultural and informative” event where you will be encouraged to ask questions.

When I asked Van Doren the one thing she wishes readers would know about Syrian refugees, she said, “Human beings in need, in general, I wish were measured by the fact that we are human beings. A beating heart, under their skin. I don’t think human lives should be politicized. They are NO different. I can’t imagine being on someone’s doorstep with my child, being turned away, for something I have no control over…these people are fleeing, with nothing, fearing what we are afraid of also! And we are turning them away.”

So, if you are like me and wonder, what can I possibly do…you can do this. You can show up, ask questions, buy a gift certificate to a place you were going to go anyway, volunteer at their next fundraiser, help them set up their store when the time comes, smile at someone who looks different than you. You never know, that smile may help them breathe a little deeper, and sleep a little longer.

You can find out more at or on Facebook. Photos from Facebook.

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