Rohingya Women Stitch Their Lives Back Together
By Tasnim Nazeer, The Diplomat
Through all the turmoil and bloodshed that the Rohingya community has had to face, some have found a ray of hope in an inspiring initiative as they rebuild and rehabilitate their lives. Testimony Tailors is a sewing cooperative run by Rohingya women refugees, supported by the #Hands4Rohingya aid project. The women have survived unfathomable tragedy such as rape and witnessing brutal killings and destruction, but the cooperative is already paving the way for restored hope for Rohingya refugees living in camps in Bangladesh. The initiative has enabled the women to gain income selling handmade clothes.
Jamila Hanan, project manager of Hands 4 Rohingya, said, “Seeing these women rebuild their lives after such horrific experiences and creating themselves these beautiful clothes, I find myself frequently shaking my head in disbelief. I am inspired and amazed at their resilience, perseverance, creativity, and hope.”
The project has helped the women share their heartbreaking testimonies to the world with the hope of them being able to gain some form of control over their lives and restore dignity through working for themselves. Sewing machines have been donated by supporters of the project, who listened to the women’s testimonies and desperately wanted to help. To date 27 sewing machines have been given to the Rohingya women, many of whom already knew how to sew. The charity set up a website for free in support of the Testimony Tailors initiative to enable them to expand the venture through an online shop. Customers can purchase their clothes to be given as gifts to other Rohingya refugees. All profits from the online shop go directly to the Rohingya women in a move to provide self-sufficiency and a way for them to get involved in something which could bring them new skills and hope for the future.
Tasmina, 17, was one of the earliest recipients of a sewing machine. “I try to bring my art into my sewing. It looks nice. People also like it. They tell me it looks beautiful. That is why I do art. And my mind is able to focus more too,” she said.
Documentary filmmaker Shafiur Rahman first visited the camps back in January 2017 to speak to the Rohingya refugees about their horrific ordeals fleeing Myanmar. Many of the women he spoke to had suffered extreme human rights abuses and were deeply traumatized, with girls as young as 14 speaking out against being abused. The women Rahman spoke to said that they had “no reason to hide their faces, if it meant telling the world what had happened to them.” Each of the women shows great courage, resilience, and strength, despite having had to face some of the most harrowing experiences a woman could face.
According to Rahman, “What this cooperative demonstrates is that people in the Rohingya camps are hungry to get on with their lives. It is wrong to view refugees as just inert recipients of aid. Their lives have been turned upside down and doing work enables them to restore some semblance of normality. They don’t want handouts. They want to work.”
He continued, “Even more significant is that a lot of these women have had incredibly traumatic experiences, and having a supportive community around you, in the form of a cooperative, helps you to cope with that. Being able to provide for yourself and your family restores some sense of control and some hope that you have control over your destiny.”
Anwara, a 16-year-old Rohingya refugee and one of the youngest survivors in the group of women, notes that her life has changed for the better since joining the sewing group, “Having received this [sewing] machine, I can earn some income. I can sew my own clothes too,” she explained. “With my income, we can buy food, we can dress well, charge our mobiles and get groceries for the house. Without a machine, we could not do any of this. Now we can make a living — and get on with our lives.”
Jobs are hard to come by in the refugee camps. Their sewing provides an income, which enables the women to buy groceries and clothes to meet their basic needs. It also helps return some small measure of control over their destiny. One young woman was under pressure to marry against her wishes, but she was ultimately able to refuse because she was supporting the family through her sewing.
Laila, 20, had 15 out of 17 members of her family killed back in Tula Toli. For her, the sewing work makes it possible to buy basic necessities. “I really wanted a machine. [with the income from sewing] I can purchase things in the market,” she explained. “If the gas runs out, I can refill it. Without the machine, I couldn’t do any of this. With this machine, I can do some business and progress. That is why I wanted the machine so much.”
The UN has described the Rohingya Muslim community in Myanmar as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Almost 700,000 Rohingya people have had to risk their lives, fleeing persecution, rape, abuse, and destruction of their homes, following a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar. Many of the victims fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where they reside in refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar.
Many of those arriving at the camps are women and children who have experienced unimaginable trauma and suffering. Refugees recount being gang raped, abused, or seriously injured (including being shot) by the military in Myanmar. Many of these women have lost their children (including infants), husbands, and family members in one of the most harrowing ordeals faced in Southeast Asia to date.
The fear of being repatriated back to Rakhine state in Myanmar, where these women and their families experienced this brutality is justified. Many are reluctant to go back as they cannot trust that their safety will be ensured under the current Myanmar regime. Bangladesh has conceded that it will be unable to voluntarily repatriate Rohingya refugees to Myanmar as it had initially planned because no one wants to return back to a place where they have no human rights, no citizenship, and no guarantee of safety.
While discussions on the repatriation plan have to date been postponed until the new year, activists are raising concerns that the situation must be monitored. There are growing calls for justice in the wake of the mounting human rights violations against the Muslim Rohingya community.
The Rohingya community has had to undergo forced displacement in the past and they cannot continue to suffer while the world looks on in silence. Those who have suffered have a right to hold their abusers accountable in the eyes of the law and gain justice. Moving forward, the focus should be on obtaining the rights of the Rohingya by giving them legal status and supporting initiatives such as Testimony Tailors that aim to aid Rohingya refugees in rebuilding their lives and calling for justice and accountability.
For more information on Testimony Tailors please visit www.testimonytailors.com
Tasnim Nazeer is an award-winning journalist, author, and UN Universal Peace Federation Ambassador. She has written for Al Jazeera English, CNN, BBC, Forbes, Entrepreneur and others. She was awarded the Ibn Battuta Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.