Poet, artist and jewelry-maker Edith Graciela Sanabria is juggling a lot these days. She is writing a children's book and trying to sell not just her paintings, but also those of her mother, Chela, a recent Bolivian immigrant.
But on a warm day in May, as she hurried to take some new paintings to Panetier, a bakery and bistro in Del Ray, a flier tacked to the bulletin board caught her eye. The flier described an arts and healing workshop at a new gallery and small business and arts incubator for immigrant women in Old Town.
Sanabria -- a Bolivian immigrant who came to the United States in 1990 to escape an oppressive military culture -- felt sure the flier had been written for her.
"I said to my mother, 'Even if you don't understand, you have to come with me,' " recalled Sanabria, 44. "That's what I need, to heal myself and focus on the things I love. That's my dream."
The new gallery and business incubator, Empowered Women International Inc., is the brainchild of Marga Fripp, 33. Fripp, an engaging brunette, was a celebrity and well-known women's rights activist in her native Romania before immigrating to the United States in 2001.
Despite her education, experience and American husband, Fripp said she suffered the same feelings of alienation and self-doubt of many immigrant women when she arrived here.
"I felt like I was in the middle of the ocean," Fripp said. "No one to help me. No one to see me. I went from being a name to a no-name. I was a career professional and I was finding myself with nothing."
Nearly three years later, she finds herself with a gallery space on Prince Street in Old Town -- an enviable address she secured with little money -- a board of directors that includes a well-known Republican consultant and a seemingly limitless future, provided she can scrape together the $83,000 she needs for this year's operating budget.
Those who have been bowled over by Fripp since her arrival here have little doubt she'll succeed.
"She is a fireball," said Ann Stone, chairman of Republicans for Choice and one of Fripp's earliest backers. "I love to hold her up as an example to my American friends who whine and complain. She's in our country one year and [Maryland Gov. Robert L.] Ehrlich is giving her an award as one of the top volunteers in Maryland. . . . Marga is very American in a way. If there's a problem, she'll figure out how to fix it."
Fripp never had any plans to leave Romania, even after she met her husband -- a North Carolina native and Peace Corps volunteer named Jesse Fripp. She settled with him in the town of Timisoara in western Romania to raise a family. She was a successful TV journalist with her own program, "More Than Eve," and head of one of the largest women's organizations against domestic abuse in the country.
In August 2001, she gave birth to her second child, Arthur, now 2, but he suffered a debilitating stroke just two days later. The family was airlifted to Switzerland for his treatment. They later flew to the United States so Arthur could be treated at Children's Hospital in the District.
Arthur has since recovered -- Fripp said his pediatrician calls him a miracle baby -- but by then the Fripps had settled in Silver Spring, where Jesse Fripp's international development company is headquartered. With her child on his way to recovery, Marga Fripp entered a difficult period of her own.
Her English was not as good as it is now, and she was never able to find a position in her field of women's rights, she said. Even waiting in line for a Social Security card seemed a bureaucratic nightmare.
"I got this feeling -- this is how immigrants are treated," Fripp recalled. "In crowds, we look like second-class citizens, kids hanging off us." The Social Security office in Montgomery County "was like Ellis Island 100 years ago. I felt so bad."
She ultimately landed a one-year position with the national service organization AmeriCorps, heading up marketing for a neighborhood initiative in Prince George's County, and later was honored by Ehrlich with the volunteer award.
In her spare time, she began making the contacts necessary to start Empowered Women International. She firmly believed that immigrant women -- unlike their husbands and children, who assimilate through school and work -- have the most difficult time adjusting to their new lives.
"The fact that I couldn't get a job and spent such a long time searching really hurt my self-confidence," Fripp said. "To go from someone who was well known in my field to someone who can't actually be paid for anything was like a slap in your face. I didn't see myself working at McDonald's. I thought I could do better than that."
Through her work at AmeriCorps, she met an Alexandria landscape architect named Mark X. LaPierre. LaPierre, 53, had a five-year lease on a office space at 1212 Prince St. in Old Town but no one to fill it. He had lost three large clients after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and had to lay off six people.
"I was basically a lonely guy in a dark, shut-down office space with dust growing on the tables," LaPierre said. "I was pretty discouraged, having lost a lot of work. Then I met Marga. She reinvigorated me."
LaPierre and Fripp agreed that she would use his office as her new office and exhibit space for A Woman's Story Gallery. Pierre also donated paint, labor, computer help and furniture to the new venture. His business has since rebounded, and his new employees have squeezed in upstairs.
"We're sort of cheek-by-jowl upstairs," LaPierre said. "But we've made a commitment. It's like the bird in the nest. You incubate it and it hatches and grows."
The gallery opened in November. Most recently, Fripp showed brightly colored abstract paintings filled with birds by an Indian immigrant named Pallavi, a local resident and library staffer whom she met at the Alexandria Library while signing up for a library card.
The gallery also shows Sanabria's paintings and jewelry and the paintings of her mother, Chela. Their story is one of Fripp's inspirations.
Chela Sanabria was suffering from debilitating arthritis and gastrointestinal trouble and could barely walk when she immigrated to the United States last year.
"I was sure I was going to die," she said in Spanish, sitting down in the modest brick home she shares with her daughter in south Alexandria, crammed with canvases and art supplies.
But with the help of American doctors, alternative healing massage, healthy food and exercise, she began a rapid improvement. Her stomach has healed, and she now walks without assistance.
Sanabria credits a large part of her recovery to art. She had taken up painting in Bolivia before she fell ill and has now returned to it.
Every day, she wakes up with visions of what to paint next: rain forests; flower-filled patios and street scenes from her home town of Chochibama, Bolivia; campesinos, or peasants, from the indigenous tribes of her home country; and the Andes mountains.
"I am so inspired!" she said, clapping her hands together in delight.
In addition to the Sanabrias, Fripp and her squad of 100 volunteers now have 150 immigrant clients trying to launch a variety of small businesses, from freelance writing to computer training. Fripp is encouraging one client, a Sudanese immigrant who specializes in the tattoo art of mehndi, to create a line of greeting cards around her designs for the gallery. Fripp and Edith Sanabria are working on a plan where she can use her artistic talents to start an after-school art program for children in her home.
When Brooke Leto, 37, an Arlington resident and Ethiopian immigrant, attended a poetry reading at the gallery recently, she found herself talking about feelings of alienation and uncertainty she hadn't discussed since she arrived in this country more than two decades ago. She said she was immediately understood.
"I found myself opening up about issues I haven't for years," Leto said. "It was an immediate 'uh-huh' reaction. It's very comforting, and in that sense what Marga is trying to do is very needed."
Aside from the $83,000 Fripp needs to continue operating, she also has dreams of securing bigger grants and donations to expand the programming to workshops, art lessons and lectures in neighborhoods such as Arlandria or the West End, which have large immigrant communities. She pooh-poohs those who discourage her and continues to dream large.
"When I came here and immediately had this idea to help immigrants fight for their rights, some friends said to me, 'Marga, in this country, you need to crawl before you can walk,' " Fripp said. "In my family -- literally -- I didn't crawl, and my kids didn't crawl. We all stood up and walked!"