Refugee from Myanmar finds farming and friends in Java

News Stories, 27 November 2007

© UNHCR/A.Restu
Jani Maung works on a plot of land in the tight-knit Javan farming community where he lives.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, November 27 (UNHCR) Two hours west of Jakarta, past the suffocating traffic jams and rows of office buildings, is a laid-back farming district. The air is clean and fields of rice and chillies stretch into the distance, dotted with Javanese farmers in wide hats and the occasional wandering buffalo. Despite the heat, the children seem to have endless energy and race along the dirt roads on bicycles, chasing chickens and bleating goats.

It seems like the most unlikely place to find a refugee. And yet, here amongst the close-knit Javanese farming community, Jani Maung* from Myanmar is working hard to build a new life. He is part of UNHCR's pilot Self-Reliance Programme, working with a local farmer to cultivate a plot of cassava and chilli which one day he hopes to sell.

"When I started, the field was overrun with tall grass and poisonous snakes and I had to clear it by hand," Maung recalled. "Plus it's dry season at the moment and I don't have a proper water pump. I tried planting corn but it was too hot and it all died, but I'm hoping to replant it during the rainy season when there is lots of water."

Despite these setbacks, the foot-high rows of cassava and chilli plants behind Maung's house make it clear that his hard work is starting to pay off. "When I first arrived here, I didn't know anyone and I had no idea what to do. But I've learned by watching the local people, and now I have many friends," he told recent visitors.

The self-reliance programme was initiated by Pulih, one of UNHCR's implementing partners, as an innovative way to counteract the difficulties refugees face in not being able to work legally in Indonesia. It functions as a training programme to allow refugees to develop new skills, and give something back to the community that has generously allowed them to stay.

"The government and the people of Indonesia have been generous to allow refugees to stay in Indonesia for extended periods of time, pending a more permanent solution," said Shinji Kubo, the head of UNHCR's protection unit in Jakarta.

"The self-reliance programme is UNHCR's new initiative to assist refugees in finding ways to make their time in Indonesia more meaningful. It also encourages refugees and local communities to share a view that they belong to one community, helping each other. In this way, we can also help the government and people of Indonesia to gradually assume more responsibility towards those in need of international protection," Kubo added.

The relationships built through the programme have had a strong impact on Maung. His parents were killed when he was only a few months old in Myanmar, and he explained: "I am completely alone in this world. People from my village wouldn't even recognize me now."

Prior to arriving in Indonesia, his hair had never once been cut and reached far past his waist. Now, his hair is short and the constant farm work has turned his face the same golden brown as his Javanese neighbours.

There are a number of other activities being tried through the pilot self-reliance programme. An Afghan family makes traditional flat bread; a Somali man helps with the running of a clothes shop while another is being trained in photo-editing; and an Iraqi family assists in the running of a store containing Arabic goods.

It is hoped that the involvement with the project will not only teach refugees about social responsibility through self-development, but will also allow them to gain additional skills and to maintain hope for the future.

Maung is positive when asked about his future. "If I leave here, my cassava and chilli plants will miss me and won't have anyone to take care of them," he grinned. "But I will be happy to find work in any country that is peaceful, and where I can make friends."

His case has been submitted to a resettlement country and Maung's attitude to working hard in Indonesia bodes well for the future if another country is willing to accept him.

* Name changed for protection reasons

By Jacqueline Parry in Jakarta, Indonesia