Rebuilding Hope and Opportunities for Refugees Through Self-Reliance

UNHCR's Micro-entrepreneurship development programme run by its NGO partner, the National Association of Women Entrepreneurs Malaysia (NAWEM).

Rashidah makes sambal with dried chillies
© UNHCR/K.Vishipir

39 year old Rashidah is a Rohingya refugee living in Malaysia with her husband and nine children. She has been a refugee all her life.

“I was born in Thailand after my family fled there from Myanmar. My parents said they fled Myanmar because it was unsafe for us to remain there,” Rashidah said.

When she was 14 years old, her family moved to Malaysia where Rashidah eventually started a family of her own.

“My life has been very difficult. I am not educated, and I am not literate, so I was unable to find good work,” said Rashidah. “We could not afford to buy rice or oil. We couldn’t buy anything.”

There are over 150,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in Malaysia, and like Rashidah, they do not have access to legal work due to their lack of legal status.

Most refugees support their families through work in the informal sector where they face exploitation and extremely low wages. However, with the support of UNHCR, NGOs, and refugee community groups, many refugees find opportunities for livelihood through self-reliance projects.

“UNHCR approached me to participate in a Micro-entrepreneurship development programme,” said Rashidah. “I received training and coaching, and a grant to start a project that would help me earn a living."

Rashidah sells the sambal she makes at home

Rashidah sells the sambal she makes at home  © UNHCR/K.Vishipir

“I have always made sambal with dried chillies, because it was what my mother had made when I was small. So I thought maybe I could sell it. I made small quantities, packed them in containers. I was so shy at first, but I approached a Myanmar shop to ask if they would sell it for me,” said Rashidah. “

The shopkeeper liked her product, and agreed to sell it for her. To her surprise, he then ordered an additional 150 packs. Then he said that other Myanmar shops nearby were also interested to sell her sambal.

“I wasn’t shy anymore after that. I approached other shops and distributed my product myself. No shopkeeper has rejected my product yet,” said Rashidah proudly. The income she earned has allowed her to also sell fruits and local cakes in her neighbourhood in the evenings.

Rashidah is one of the success stories from UNHCR’s Micro-entrepreneurship development programme run by its NGO partner, the National Association of Women Entrepreneurs Malaysia (NAWEM). Programmes such as this aims to strengthen the capacity of refugees to explore opportunities to be self-reliant, which will lead towards a more resilient refugee community who are better able to contribute positively to the host country.

“I learnt how to speak English, how to serve customers, how to work on a business, how to invest and gain profit. I never had any of this knowledge until I joined this programme,” said Rashidah.

“I remember in the past, when I wanted to work, my husband wouldn’t allow me because it was as though he didn’t believe in me. But now I know that I can succeed if I have full determination to achieve what I want. I don’t need anyone to give me their support because it comes from inside me.

“I feel it is vital for refugees to have a chance to earn a livelihood just like any other person. What others can do, we can do too.”