Small ornaments with big impact, crafted by Afghan refugees in India, Malaysia and Pakistan

Afghan refugee artisans are using their skills to design and make crafts for MADE51, UNHCR's global brand of refugee-made products.

Najiba, a refugee living in Malaysia, holds up a small Afghan Hound ornament she has made for the MADE51 Holiday Collection. The hound represents the silky dog breed that is native to her home country, Afghanistan.
© Earth Heir

In Shakeba’s expert hands, pieces of felt – upcycled leftovers from the garment industry – become detailed, expressive snow leopard ornaments. Humaira is a refugee living in Delhi, and the snow leopard holds meaning for her – it is the national animal of her home country, Afghanistan, where it represents beauty and bravery.

Displaced artisans like Shakeba play a key role in keeping the rich cultural heritage of Afghanistan alive.  Though forced to leave most material things behind, refugees are able to carry their traditions, skills, knowledge and craftsmanship. For Afghan refugees, this includes everything from music to calligraphy, ceramics to textile crafts of embroidery and carpet making.

Afghan refugees around the world have found that these skills can become a lifeline, offering them an opportunity to earn much-needed income.

“Working…has helped me with my mental health, I don’t think about my problems. The income helps me support my family and my children,” said Najiba, an Afghan refugee in Malaysia.

Najiba and Shakeba are among the many Afghan refugees using heritage skills to create products that are marketed by UNHCR’s global brand of refugee-made products, MADE51. From Malaysia, to India, to Pakistan, MADE51 has connected Afghan refugee artisans with local social enterprise partners to design, make and market their crafts across the world.

Najiba, a mother of four, fled Afghanistan to Kuala Lumpur due to military and political conflict. Bringing with her skilful hands in cross-stitching and crocheting, she has been working with MADE51’s partner, Earth Heir, to create beautiful embroidered jewellery. This work allows her to earn in income at home, where she can take care of the young children and show them her crafts.

  • MADE51 holiday collection ornaments made by Afghan refugee women.
    MADE51 holiday collection ornaments made by Afghan refugee women. © UNHCR/MADE51
  • Afghan artisan Najiba works, surrounded by her children, at their home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
    Afghan artisan Najiba works, surrounded by her children, at their home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. © UNHCR/Paula Bronstein
  • "It fills me with happiness to know that my handmade ornament will be gifted and presented around the world," said Khalida, an Afghan asylum-seeker living in India.
    "It fills me with happiness to know that my handmade ornament will be gifted and presented around the world," said Khalida, an Afghan asylum-seeker living in India.  © UNHCR/Wahidullah Faizi
  • Khalida works on intricate designs to make the holiday collection ornaments. With previous experience working with handmade beads, she enjoys making the ornaments.
    Khalida works on intricate designs to make the holiday collection ornaments. With previous experience working with handmade beads, she enjoys making the ornaments. © UNHCR/Wahidullah Faizi

This November, MADE51 launched a collection of holiday ornaments handmade by refugees around the world, including seven pieces by Afghan refugees. Through fine crochet, beading or intricate embroidery, geometric shapes and expressive animals like the snow leopard become motifs that carry stories about the deep history, tradition, and journey of their makers.

In Pakistan, Afghan women living in refugee camps embroider and bead delicate mountain symbols, evocative of the rugged peaks of their native lands. Though they are simple objects, they represent an opportunity for women to provide for their families and build a future for their children.

Bilqees, an Afghan refugee in Pakistan who uses her income to support her children’s education expressed the hope, for herself and the group of women she works with, that “our work as artisans flourishes even more. It will benefit the lives of our children.”