Not just business as usual for refugees in Pakistan

News Stories, 9 June 2008

© UNHCR/A.Shahzad
Hairdresser by day, Iranian refugee Huma Mir Shahi spends her evenings on a UNHCR-funded sewing machine to supplement her income in Islamabad.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 9 (UNHCR) It's unusually quiet for a salon, minus the buzz of gossip and hairdryers. Stylist Huma Mir Shahi hasn't spoken a word since she was two, for reasons she doesn't want to get into. But as she curls and teases her client's hair in silent efficiency, it's clear her hands do all the talking.

Huma is good with her hands the same ones that brought up her two children after her husband died in an accident 11 years ago; the same ones that led them from their native Iran to Pakistan in 2001 after fleeing problems at home.

Today, the Iranian widow's artistic touch is helping to supplement the family income. She recently graduated from a sewing course funded by the UN refugee agency through its partners, Struggle for Change (SACH) and Social Counselling for Assistance Centre (SCAC). This was followed by micro-entrepreneurship training, after which she received a grant to start her own business.

Huma's family her children are now aged 18 and 11 is among some 50 refugee families who have benefited from the SACH-SCAC trainings in Pakistan's capital Islamabad and the nearby city of Rawalpindi.

With the exception of those with serious medical conditions, all vulnerable refugees who receive subsistence allowance from UNHCR are expected to take part in the training.

"We introduced skills training for male and female refugees so they can be socio-economically self-reliant," explained Khalida Salimi, the executive director of SACH. "Each individual is assessed to find out their interests, previous skills and future plans, so that we can match them with suitable training."

Courses for men include the repair of mobile phones, TV and refrigerators, tailoring, hairdressing, plumbing, building electrician, automobile technician, computer skills, hotel management and language courses. Training for women ranges from tailoring to beauty parlour, computer skills, embroidery, candle making, hotel management and languages.

Refugees who complete their chosen course are encouraged to attend micro-entrepreneurship training to learn how to write a business plan. If their plan is realistic, they receive a grant of 10,000 Pakistani rupees (nearly US$150) to develop their own business.

Huma used the grant to buy a sewing machine, which she uses in the evenings after she finishes work at the beauty parlour. She charges her local and Iranian clients 200 to 500 rupees per outfit, and has managed to increase her monthly income of 8,000 rupees by 50-60 percent.

Iraqi refugee Ali Dakhil Aziz is also reaping the fruits of his labour. "For 10 years, I struggled to survive in Pakistan," he said. "Then I decided to register for training."

His business plan was approved and he received the funds to start his own vegetable stall in Rawalpindi. He runs it with a Pakistani friend as he is not fully fluent in Urdu and cannot deal with customers. His daily income of 300 rupees is not much, but it is a big improvement from before.

© UNHCR/A.Shahzad
A UNHCR grant helped Iraqi refugee Ali Dakhil Aziz to set up his vegetable stall in Rawalpindi.

"Keeping in view the present situation in Pakistan, no one can guarantee that after getting skills training, refugees can get a good job," noted SACH's Salimi, Nonetheless, she added, it was important to wean them off long-term assistance to prevent the onset of dependency.

At 22 years of age, Maryama Usman is finding her own feet with help from SACH. She lost her family during the conflict in Somalia, then fled with her adopted family to Pakistan. When they left for Egypt recently, she decided to stay in Islamabad on her own.

The Somali refugee completed the micro-entrepreneurship training with an endorsement of her business plan. She used her grant to buy fabrics from wholesale markets in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar, which she then sells in Islamabad. "It was difficult in the first few months, but with courage, hard work, dedication and a good business plan, anyone can succeed," she said.

In addition to capacity-building, SACH also runs an Advice and Legal Aid Centre (ALAC) for refugees in the Rawalpindi and Islamabad areas.

While registered Afghans some 2 million of them make up the large majority of people of concern to UNHCR in Pakistan, there are also some 700 recognized refugees from countries such as Iran, Iraq and Somalia.

By Asif Shahzad in Islamabad, Pakistan