Honoring a life and a community, one 'Refutee' at a time
The idea, at its core, was simple — design a T-shirt, sell it, and use the profits to buy and send needed items to refugees.
For Hussein Al-Baiaty, who first thought of the idea a few years after opening a T-shirt printing business in 2011, the project was more than just another business venture. It was personal.
Born in Samawah, Iraq, Al-Baiaty was forced to flee his hometown with his family when he was only 5. Unable to stay in wartorn Iraq, his family crossed into Saudi Arabia, where they stayed in a refugee camp with others who fled the violence in their home country.
"I wanted to give other refugees the things that I didn't have when I was living in a refugee camp," Al-Baiaty said, speaking of the inspiration for his T-shirt idea.
Al-Baiaty remembers his father, an artist, earned the positive regard of camp officials for his paintings that used the camp's decommissioned tents as canvases.
Even as a child, Al-Baiaty said, he began to show he had inherited his father's artistic gifts.
"My father was my hero," he said.
After three years living in the refugee camp, Al-Baiaty and his family were able to emigrate to Oregon in 1994. The family stayed in Oregon, and after graduating from Aloha High School in Beaverton, Al-Baiaty went to Portland State University to study architecture. However, upon graduating in 2008, he struggled to find a job due to the Great Recession.
Unsure where to turn, Al-Baiaty took to screen-printing T-shirts, his former side gig that had helped him pay for college expenses. But after a few failed initial attempts at starting his own screen-printing business, he took a job at Oregon Health & Science University transporting blood samples.
Something, however, kept drawing him back to screen-printing. In 2011, Al-Baiaty put all his cards on the table and made a final attempt at a screen-printing shop.
The bet ended up paying off. After two years, his shop, which he named The Printory, was doing good business.
By 2014, the idea of designing shirts to help refugees had been buzzing in Al-Baiaty's mind for a few year.
"The idea and the groundwork was already there," Al-Baiaty said. "We just needed someone to plug it into the wall."
Al-Baiaty got the inspiration he needed to get his idea off the ground after going to a TEDx conference in Portland and connecting with Cody Goldberg, one of the speakers at the event. After learning of Al-Baiaty's idea, Goldberg suggested he call the project "Refutees."
Now that his idea had a name, Al-Baiaty felt a surge of enthusiasm and began making Refutees a reality.
At first, Al-Baiaty had big ambitions for Refutees.
"The concept was 'let's fill up a shipping container with as much goods as we can possibly round up and send it to a refugee camp,'" he recalled.
Realizing that he had limited resources, Al-Baiaty decided to start small and instead commit to creating a design every month and filling up a box for Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) and Catholic Charities, which work with the local refugee community.
"Those are the organizations that helped us when we came here," Al-Baiaty explained.
Despite the momentum for both The Printory and Refutees, the Al-Baiaty family was struck by tragedy in 2016, when Al-Baiaty's father passed away suddenly.
"It was hard for me to come to work or do any work," Al-Baiaty admitted.
Business slowed down dramatically. Al-Baiaty put Refutees on the backburner while he tried to simultaneously manage his grief and keep the shop running.
A few months after his father passed, in 2017, Al-Baiaty decided it was time to return to his Refutees project — and design an honorary T-shirt for his father.
"That's how I realized I needed a way to deal with my emotions," said Al-Baiaty, "and my personal thing was to come to art and design and create to express it."
In a way, his father's death gave a deeper, even more personal meaning to Refutees, leading to the brand's rebirth in 2018.
"His death really helped me understand my own mortality and perspective," Al-Baiaty said. "We can all get lost in a forest of our concerns, but in that time, I felt like was plucked from the forest to see the whole picture."
With this new perspective, Al-Baiaty started creating designs that were more message-driven.
"I wanted to use the designs to remind me personally of the things I need to remember," Al-Baiaty said. "A lot of it is messaging that (my father) instilled in me."
Instead of producing a T-shirt design every month, Al-Baiaty decided to release shirts on a quarterly basis, so he could focus on the quality of the design and packaging.
"I wanted to pay attention to every detail 150 percent, because this was an opportunity to honor my father with my work, and to honor my heritage and honor myself and honor artists," Al-Baiaty said.
With the new revival of Refutees gaining traction, in 2018, Al-Baiaty decided to go to the Beaverton Night Market to sell shirts he made for Refutees.
"It was the first time of really bringing it into the light," said Al-Baiaty, who had only been selling his shirts online.
He was unsure what to expect, but Al-Baiaty was floored by the positive response he received by the community. He ended the night having sold out of almost every shirt.
Today, in addition to running The Printory and Refutees, Al-Baiaty visits high schools in Washington County to share his story — as a refugee, and as a business owner — in hopes of inspiring students to enact positive change.
Refutees, however, remains his main focus. In 2020, Al-Baiaty said, he will continue coming up with quarterly designs, sending out boxes to local refugee organizations and participating in community events — all with the hope of sharing his father's teachings of giving back and spreading peace.
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