As of May 2018, over 25 million individuals worldwide are refugees – people who have been forced to leave their countries due to persecution, war, or violence. For many of these refugees, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is their only form of legal protection. In 2017, UNHCR started the MADE51 project, a new initiative which attempts to address the needs of these displaced peoples in a novel, considered way.
The MADE51 initiative recognizes the myriad heritage artisanal skills that refugees bring with them as they flee their homes. The aim of this initiative is to help refugees harness their traditional skills to bring modern, innovative refugee-made products to the global market by connecting them with international designers and local social enterprises. These talented refugee artisans become part of an ethical supply chain, earning income to provide for themselves and their families. Instead of relying on charitable handouts, generating their own income builds self-esteem and restores their sense of self determination.
Malaysia is one of the few countries in the world that is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention that protects the basic rights of refugees. The estimated 158,000 refugees in Malaysia face fears of mistreatment every day and lack avenues for self-sufficiency. Currently, Earth Heir works with over 100 artisans throughout Malaysia, including women’s cooperative groups, indigenous craftspeople, disabled artisans and refugee artisans living in Malaysia. “Earth Heir works with artisans, craftspeople, and designers to create beautifully designed products that preserve the heritage of age old traditions and skills, which are being lost,” Sasibai Kimis, the founder and CEO of Earth Heir.
These are the photos I took for “This is Home” exhibition that is currently on display at Urbanscapes arts festival in Malaysia. If you're in Kuala Lumpur, drop by Urbanscapes House and read get to know their stories. Exhibition will run till Nov 18th 2018.
Favourite Malaysian food: I don’t eat Malaysian food often. My children have never tried Malaysian food. I make rice and potatoes at home.
I grew up as a refugee in Iran. I hated going to school. My classmates laughed at me because I was poor and a refugee. When I grew up I went back to Afghanistan.
I was a primary school teacher in a village in Afghanistan, seven hours from Kabul. I loved teaching, but we also didn’t have a good situation there. Our compatriots didn’t want us and our government was very very bad, even worse than in the past. There were people going after my husband.
We escaped to Malaysia last year with my two young daughters, my father-in-law and my mother-in-law. Here also we don’t have permission to work and a lot of problems about money, health, mind. I can’t see a good future. I cannot go back anywhere, I never had a home or country. You know I think the worst thing in the world is you feel you belong to no place.
Favourite Malaysian food: Meehoon Soup
In Myanmar, a person’s salary is not enough for the whole family. In Malaysia, on good months when we get a lot of orders I can make 700 ringgit a month. It is not much, but with this I support my family.
My parents passed away when I was young. I have three children and I have been in Malaysia for ten years. My oldest is nine years old and my youngest is four years old. It is difficult to live as a refugee here in Malaysia, but Myanmar is not safe for me.
Favourite Malaysian food: Nasi Lemak, with ikan billis and egg.
My husband and I were pastors in Myanmar. Unlike in Malaysia, in Myanmar we were not free to worship.
I have been in Malaysia for four years. It is not safe for me to go out because I have no clear identity here. I teach patterns and sewing to the other women in Mang Tha two days a week for a small salary. One of my six children has gone back to Myanmar to find work.
Favourite Malaysian food: Meehoon Soup and Meehoon Goreng
I am a nursery school teacher here in Malaysia. In Myanmar it is very difficult for women to find work. And food is much more expensive in Myanmar.
It has been 4 years since I’ve been in Malaysia. My UNHCR card is my only identification and protection. I am afraid of going out because I have been arrested a few times. The police normally ask for a payment to not arrest me. Once I was arrested, my family had to go to the station to pay 500 ringgit and beg for my release.
Favourite food: Nasi Goreng USA, Maggi Kungfu
Every year it gets worse, because we don’t know how long we have to wait*. When I have a good day and think that things are finally starting to get better, things don’t get better. My daughter, after trying for so long finally found a job, but at the end of the month they only paid her half the salary they promised. We cannot say anything, because we are refugees. I cannot sleep because I cannot see a future for my two children.
Actually, before we were refugees in Malaysia, my family and I were refugees in Iran. It was much more difficult there. People hated Hazara people like us, they say that we are children of Genghis Khan. We couldn’t rent a house there. I couldn’t even buy a SIM card. Malaysia is much better.
*Because Malaysia is not signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have a policy accepting refugees, UNHCR Malaysia has a resettlement program to permanently resettle refugees in third countries such as the United States of America and New Zealand. The number of refugees awaiting resettlement far exceeds the number of people these third countries are willing to take in, so it is not uncommon for refugees to be waiting for years.
Favourite Malaysian food: Everything, except curry
My parents came to Malaysia with me and my sisters when I was 13. I am 21 years old now.
I learned how to speak English here. I can learn a lot new things in Malaysia. After graduating from high school here at age 17, I started working full-time as Mang Tha’s coordinator. I learnt so much. I learnt about communications, finance, online marketing, pricing and leadership.
A few months ago UNHCR decided that the Chin State is safe now, so refugees from the Chin State like me will stop having UNHCR protection. I feel helpless. I attended refugee school here in Malaysia and have no official education certification. There will be no job opportunities for me in Myanmar.
Favourite Malaysian food: Chicken Rice
In my home village, the men went into the forests to hunt and the women worked on our farms. We were strong. We could do everything! But the military came to take our land and we had to escape. I escaped to Malaysia seven years ago.
Malaysia is not my country and I cannot stay here. But I don’t want to go back. When I can do sewing work in my home in Malaysia or in our community workshop (Mang Tha), I feel safe because I do not worry about being caught.
Favourite Malaysian food: Nasi Goreng
Back in Syria, I worked as an officer in the Ministry of Agriculture. I had to leave my country because of the war. The war destroyed everything.
I like Malaysia, I like Malaysia too much. I like the nature, the people. Kuala Lumpur is a beautiful city. But I cannot do anything for my future here, that is the problem. Here I cannot work, cannot go to University and I cannot sell my art.
Favourite Malaysian food: KFC and Rendang
Malaysia is good because I can be with my family. But when my children are sick it is difficult to go to a doctor. The doctors don’t take good care of us because we are refugees. The clinics charge RM300 for just a simple consultation.
I like working on the MADE51 project. The pay is better than my normal work, and I learn new things. I have made many traditional Chin cross stitch, but this is the first time I have seen this small cross stitch and this small fabric.