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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Delhi: As refugee Afghan women try to get back on their feet, some hurdles

The centre put up by two NGOs, Peace Building Project and People Beyond Borders, is hard to miss with voices spilling out on the street above – a mix of Pashto, Dari, Farsi, and Hindi, among others.

Written by Sonal Gupta | New Delhi |
Updated: September 14, 2021 11:54:23 am
At the workshop in Malviya Nagar. (Photo: Sonal Gupta)

Amid the narrow lanes of Malviya Nagar, nearly 15 Afghan women refugees throng a tiny basement to learn the art of stitching sustainable cloth sanitary napkins. The centre put up by two NGOs, Peace Building Project and People Beyond Borders, is hard to miss with voices spilling out on the street above – a mix of Pashto, Dari, Farsi, and Hindi, among others.

The women huddle over sewing machines as instructors from another organisation, Kamakhya, guide them. While they belong to different ethnicities – Hazaras, Tajiks and Pashtuns – a sense of community is evident in shared laughter and comforting pats on the back.

Fearing persecution and violence back home, many of them came to India a few years ago in search of better economic opportunities. With the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, their hopes to return or see their family members have become a distant dream.

The refugee women are learning the art of stitching sustainable cloth sanitary napkins. (Express Photo)

A 23-year-old Afghan student, who is part of the project, says she was once an aspiring businesswoman and wanted to help other women of her country, many of whom remain without education. “We used to have lots of dreams, to become something and help others. Since we came here, all those dreams were destroyed,” she says.

“These days, we are just busy surviving, learning how to earn some money to fulfil our basic needs. We have the ability to make something or become something, but don’t have the opportunity,” she says, adding that without an Aadhaar card and bank accounts, most organisations deny them employment.

While some of the women have UNHCR cards which grant them refugee status, most don’t, says a volunteer.

Says a 40-year-old mother of five, “Sapne hamare paas bilkul nahi hain, bilkul chale gaye hain (We don’t have any dreams, they are all lost). How can I dream of seeing my kids become doctors or professionals when I have nothing? I want to have a house and a car. Now, earning enough to pay rent and for three-square meals is more than enough.”

The women used to make handicrafts, jewellery and crochet products that they sold in exhibitions. Since the pandemic, however, this source of income dried up as orders dwindled and exhibitions stopped. “It’s been over a year since we had work,” says the 40-year-old.

The student adds that while they had been earning at least Rs 5,000 a month through their sales, even that is lost with the pandemic.

Another woman recounts how the news of the Taliban crisis back home had rendered her helpless: “My mother, brother and sister are still there. I called my brother when I heard the news and he told me he was running back to the house from his workplace and there was chaos on the streets. I got so worried, I couldn’t get up for four days and had low BP.”

That’s when she decided to come to the centre – to distract herself and earn some money.

The NGO also provides expressive art workshops to the women. (Express Photo)

The Peace Building Project along with People Beyond Borders recently earned a grant from the UNDP for their project to secure a livelihood model for these women. Kashvi Chandok, one of the programme associates, says: “We have a buy-back model with Kamakhya, which teaches the women how to make the products. In the initial phase, for two-three months, they will buy the sanitary napkins. The organisations, in the meantime, are working on ways to get these women larger payments and a profitable business.”

However, lack of bank accounts among the refugees is a major challenge. Chandok says they are exploring more grants and funds to help complete the project.

The NGO also provides expressive art workshops to help the women improve their communication skills and confidence, says Navya, a volunteer. Even if they relocate to another country for asylum, they will still carry the skills with them, she adds.

A 33-year-old mother of five says she decided to join the centre as the salaries of her two daughters were no longer enough to meet expenses: “I’ve come here with the hope that I can have a daily income. These products are a way to help myself and those who buy them. She has been living in Delhi for the last three years and used to be a teacher in Afghanistan.

Another woman explains that her husband has been unable to secure a stable job without an Aadhaar card. When he lost his driving gig through a borrowed car, they had to pull their three children out of school. However, the centre has revived her determination to earn her “rozi roti”. “At least I will learn something and can find comfort among my friends here,” she says.

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