Urban refugee women teach themselves knitting - and self-confidence

News Stories, 7 December 2009

© UNHCR/Zalmaï
A Beehive of Activity: Ethnic Chin refugees from Myanmar knit Christmas wall-hangings and tree ornaments

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, December 7 (UNHCR) A beehive of activity surrounds Kyu Manda as seven of her fellow Myanmar refugees bend over worktables in a small room in Kuala Lumpur, sewing Christmas wall-hangings and knitting Christmas tree ornaments.

"Right now we are learning how to knit Christmas decorations," says Kyu Manda, like the other women a member of the Chin ethnic group. "The women will take home these materials and finish the items at home," she adds.

Kyu Manda is coordinator of a self-help project for refugee women in Malaysia called Mang Tha, meaning "Sweet Dreams" in the Lai dialect spoken by some of the Myanmar Chin community. "We will be selling these items at Christmas bazaars, and 90 percent of the sales go back to the women," she adds.

Mang Tha, started in 2007 as a small project for refugee women living in Malaysia's towns and cities to earn money in a safe environment, has now grown to include more than 75 women.

It's difficult for the 67,800 refugees and asylum-seekers (mainly from Myanmar) registered with the UN refugee agency in Malaysia to work legally, so projects run by refugees to help themselves are especially important.

Refugee women, who make up nearly 40 percent of the refugee population, are particularly reluctant to leave their homes to work because of the threat of sexual harassment and exploitation as well as cultural restrictions.

"This is a way for women to be able to earn a living in the safety of their own homes," said Kyu Manda. As well as learning to sew, knit and embroider, they learn how to market their products.

The sewing and knitting training is contributed by fellow refugees, but non-refugee volunteers, both Malaysian and foreign, step in to help with the marketing. Products are sold through bazaars, online distribution and word of mouth.

Fleeing persecution in Myanmar, Tiem, a single mother, brought her three teenage children to Malaysia over a year ago with barely more than a bag of clothes among them. But Tiem brought with her something far more valuable her skills as a seamstress.

"I work two times a week at Mang Tha to teach the women how to sew," says Tiem. "I think it is a valuable skill. Because of my sewing skills in Myanmar, I could support my family after my husband died. Now I am also able to sew clothes for other refugees to earn extra income."

On average, the women each earn about 500 ringgit (US$150) a month through Mang Tha, working according to their own schedules and getting paid per piece.

"I feel so happy when I see one of my bags sold," says Rita, a refugee woman who has learnt specialized skills in embroidery. "It's important that we are able to support ourselves financially, and if we can avoid leaving the house for work, it's much safer for us."

Independence, self-confidence and dignity are as important pay-offs as the income and safety, says Kyu Manda. Women's faces light up the first time they receive their hard-earned wages and realize they're able to support themselves and their families in exile.

"When they can contribute positively to their community, it makes them feel good about themselves," she says. "Many of the women who participated in the project are now leaders who encourage other women to come out of their shell."

And sewing together stitches up a real sense of community for these refugee women so far from home. For Nie Nie, a young Chin woman of barely 25, Mang Tha is an opportunity to be a part of a community of sisters.

"I enjoy getting together with the other women," says Nie Nie. "Mang Tha is my family. It is important to have the comfort of still being near your community."

By Yante Ismail in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia