This International Women’s Day, we celebrate the women who choose to challenge their barriers.
For refugee women, these barriers are daunting. In addition to daily struggles with inequality and food insecurity that most women in developing countries face, refugee women have even greater challenges due to their legal status, their traumatising pasts and their uncertain futures.
Yet, every day, they take a step forward in challenging these barriers and pursuing their hopes for brighter futures. Through UNHCR and MADE51, we are honoured to play a small role in supporting them to do so by creating opportunity. Opportunity to earn income, develop a community of support, remind themselves of their heritage and be role models for their daughters and other young refugee women. Opportunity for their voices to be heard through their words and the beautiful products they craft.
We invite you to read some of their stories - and experience their resilience and determination as they challenge their barriers. We are continually inspired by their strength and are proud to be a part of their journeys.
Tamanna & Najiba, Afghan refugees in India
Tamanna and Najiba both work with our partner organization Silaiwali, a social enterprise in New Delhi which up-cycles waste fabric into beautiful dolls.
In 2018, Tamanna fled from Afghanistan with her mother and three sisters. Kabul is still in her heart -- she remembers her friends and classmates fondly. She was just 23 and starting her life when she was forced to leave the familiar behind. Though artisan work keeps her busy and gives her a way to connect with other Afghan refugees, she is still adjusting to Delhi. She is shy and struggling to learn the local language. But she is persistent, so in her free time she’s taken to watching Hindi movies and, one day at a time, she is getting closer to breaking down the language barrier around her.
Tamanna’s fellow artisan, Najiba, was working in carpet making in Kabul when she was forced to flee her home six years ago. Life was challenging when she and her family arrived as refugees in India. With no formal education, she also found learning the local language was difficult. It was her heritage that offered her a way to support herself. As a child she would sit for hours with her mother and other women immersed in needle-work, creating crochet lace. This skill became a lifeline for her, and allowed her to flourish as an artisan with SilaiWali. Now, Najiba speaks fluent Hindi and is learning English - her able hands and quick mind opening new possibilities for her.
Bershab, Eritrean refugee in Kenya
“RefuSHE has been a mother and a sister to me. I am proud to be part of a community of friends who continually inspire one another.”
Since being forced to flee Eritrea in 2013, 19-year-old Bershab has created a new home at Refushe, a social enterprise in Kenya. She is a member of their Artisan Collective, which helps refugee girls and young women gain entrepreneurial skills, confidence, and resilience through artisan work. RefuShe believes that every refugee girl, woman, and child deserves a life of prosperity and dignity with equal access to safety, education, and economic prosperity. With monthly earnings, Bershab and her fellow Artisan Collective members can pay rent, feed their families, and cover household expenses while building up savings for the future.
Mukamaana Kolodine, Former Burundian refugee
Mukamaana Kolodine was forced to flee on foot. Together with her family, she escaped violence in Burundi by crossing the border and seeking refuge in Tanzania. They lived in the Mtendeli refugee camp for two years. During this time she began weaving with our partner organisation, Womencraft.
She earned much-needed income, and even built up savings. This allowed her to weather the storm when policy changes in Tanzania uprooted her family once more and sent them back to Burundi.
“In the refugee camp, my weaving income was a lifeline for my family. It was the only opportunity to earn money. From each order we produced, I was able to save some of the income, which has helped us reestablish our lives now that we are back in our village in Burundi.”
She continues to weave with WomenCraft, crossing the border regularly to meet up with her weaving group in Tanzania.
Parveen, Afghan refugee in India
Before being forced to flee, Parveen was a manager at the ministry of economy in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Today, she is using other talents to support herself and her daughters. Working with Archisia, a partner organization in India, she crochets intricate pieces of jewellery and accessories.
Her past is with her. She is often reminiscing of the lost beauty of her country and its clear blue skies.
But her future, and the future of her four daughters, is what she lives for now. Parveen wants them to be able to study, learn skills and "stand on their own two feet." Her greatest dream is their independence - financially and intellectually.
Parveen has a lot to be proud of already: her eldest daughter is preparing to be a doctor, the next is a web designer and the youngest two... let's see. They are still in school, right where they should be.
H., Afghan refugee in Malaysia
“Work helps me forget my troubles.”
H. came to Malaysia to protect her family. Staying in Afghanistan was no longer a safe option for them. But a safer country doesn’t mean life is easy. Because of their refugee status, H. and her husband struggled to find work. Their teenager suffered from severe depression. Paying for rent, basic needs, and her daughter’s medication was a near-impossible task. The future was daunting.
But H. is a talented artisan and was able to connect with Earth Heir, a social enterprise in Kuala Lumpur, where she now works creating jewellery and accessories. Finding financial stability and support has been liberating: she is able to provide for her family and care for her daughter’s mental health. Hope has arrived for her.
Josephine Murekatete, Burundian refugee in Rwanda
“Being empowered is to keep going no matter what you face in life.”
Josephine Murekatete, fled to the Mahama Refugee Camp in Rwanda in August 2015 with only one of her children. She now resides at the camp with all five of her children, her husband, and two of her sister’s children.
Before participating in Indego Africa’s Economic Inclusion for Refugees program and joining the Akeza Cooperative at Mahama, Josephine had never held a formal job. She previously worked as a farmer in Burundi and occasionally sold plastic baskets in the local market.
Since training with Indego Africa, Josephine’s weaving skills have vastly improved. She is a leading member of Akeza Cooperative, a “very confident” businesswoman, and the primary income earner in her family. She is able to afford school-related fees for her children and the day-to-day expenses of her family’s life at Mahama.
“I used to work alone but now I weave with others. I’ve learned to share even the smallest amount of what I have with my cooperative. It feels good to exchange ideas and live well with others.”
One of Josephine’s proudest accomplishments was her ability to make an investment. With the income she earned and saved from fulfilling purchase orders for Indego Africa, Josephine purchased a sewing machine. Her husband now uses that machine to make money for their family by sewing clothes and household items for others at the camp.
Education remains very important to Josephine, for herself and her children. She wants to continue perfecting her weaving skills and continue learning how to manage a business so she can create a brighter future for herself and her family.
Rania, Syrian refugee in Turkey
"Every woman who supports her family financially is proud”
Rania was one of the first Syrian refugee women to join the Bebemoss team. As a mother of three with craft skills that she learned in childhood, it was a natural fit. Entirely female run, Bebemoss makes crochet toys with a mission to provide sustainable jobs with fair wages to mothers living in the outskirts of Istanbul. Through home-based artisan work, mothers are able to care for their children and earn an essential income - two priorities that are too often incompatible for refugee women.
For Rania, her three children are at the heart of everything she does: it’s her biggest priority that they all attend school. But luckily, she likes her work, saying it “is not only a job it is also an art, your work is art.”
Maral, Syrian refugee in Armenia
Maral Sheuhmelian Berberian is an embroidery artist from Aleppo. She learned from her grandmother and Maral jokes that even before she was able to walk, she already could work with a needle. She used to embroider to decorate her home, making jewelry and clothing for her family.
Her family moved to Armenia in 2015 during the war in Syria. There, her passion for embroidery became a full-time job for Maral at the fair trade enterprise HDIF, where she enjoys creating adornments for MADE51. She excels in traditional Armenian embroidery techniques like Svaz, Van, Ourfa, Marash and Aynteb. Every stitch she makes is a challenge to injustice and a celebration of cultural heritage.
Fatima, Syrian refugee in Lebanon
Like millions of Syrians, Fatima and her family fled to Lebanon to escape the war. Finding safety across the border, Fatima quickly realized she needed a stable income for her family. She found Shatila Studio, a social enterprise in Beirut, and began training to build on her existing embroidery and knitting skills. Her exquisite needlework talent made her handmade items stand out and her hopes of financial security started to come to fruition.
Like many female artisans, her four children are her motivation. “Even though I have to balance my chores at home and working here, I feel like I am able to contribute to filling the needs of my children.” Fatima hopes to be resettled along with her family somewhere where she can open her own atelier and provide a better life for her children. In the meantime, she is making ends meet creating beautiful products.