Pha Pa spreads an embroidered square of cloth on her lap, and admirers comment on the microscopic stitches, intricate patterns and perfect geometrical shapes.
"It is easy," she says in halting but clear English.
The admirers look dubious.
Pha Pa, 41, who emigrated from Laos two years ago, learned embroidery from her mother when she was 10. Starting tomorrow, her work, along with that of other refugees, will be on sale in an experimental program sponsored by the Alexandria Department of Human Services.
The program is an attempt to provide extra income for Alexandria's Laotian, Vietnamese, Afghan and Cambodian refugees whose federal aid is running out.
"These people lived in the mountains and are not educated, but they have skills," said city Refugee Coordinator Jan Vinaya of the 30 crafts people participating. "We felt we could recognize their needs by finding a way for them to earn an income and preserve their culture."
The crafts will be exhibited at The Creative Outlet, a commercial gallery at 1325 King St., through Oct. 31. Prices for the works, including embroidered pillows and purses, hand-woven cloth, wall hangings and clothing, range from $20 to $200. For any sales made this month by the refugees, the gallery has decided to waive the standard cut it gets, which is 35 percent of the sale price, owner Elizabeth Green said.
All refugees participating in the program are women.
"It is difficult for women in families to work at a job because it is against their culture," said Vinaya, who emigrated from Laos with her husband in 1975. "This allows them to work at home and be with their children."
Ying Yang, 30, who learned to embroider when she was 13, said it would be impossible to leave her six children and take a job outside her Alexandria home.
But she often finds time to embroider panels of cloth while watching her own children or baby-sitting for others.
"The money, it will be nice," she said of prospective sales.
Ultimately, the city hopes to set up a cottage industry with refugees producing goods sold through commercial outlets. Vinaya said the city has advertised for a volunteer to plan marketing strategy for the project but has yet to receive any offers.
"It can be done, but I think it will take a lot of planning," she said. "It is something we are looking forward to. The refugees are interested and I think the market is there. This has never been tried before."