A Stitching Enterprise by the Hazaras of Afghanistan
Posted on May 21, 2022
“You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.” Hussain, a young Hazara refugee in KL
The Afghan Hazara People
Due to the widely publicized 20-year conflict that the US was involved in Afghanistan against the military Al Qaeda, particularly the leadership of Osama bin Laden from 2001 till 2021, many of us have a distorted image of the country Afghanistan and her people.
As in every war, people suffered, and people moved away from the war zones to a perceived haven. Malaysia is one of the countries that the Afghans have come to call “home”.
Malaysia currently hosts some 179,500 refugees registered with UNHCR and 2,640 of them are from Afghanistan. Many Afghan refugees arrived in Malaysia since 2001, fleeing conflict and persecution in their homeland. Out of these Afghans, there are those from Hazarajat, a region in Afghanistan.
The Hazaras have faced significant marginalization, persecution, and displacement, perhaps most zealously by the Taliban in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Later, they faced further discrimination by ISIS due to their Shia religion. In Afghanistan, the Hazara people are an ethnic minority whereas the majority is made up of the Pashtun people while the Uzbeks and Tajiks form the other two main ethnic groups.
No official records are available publicly, but there are estimated to be approximately 1,000 Hazara families who are in Malaysia as asylum-seekers and refugees. These people rely heavily on UNHCR-issued ID cards for status. Under Malaysian law, they are liable for arrest or deportation, but showing this card provides some protection.
Since the refugees aren’t allowed to work legally they have no choice but to work off the books, with very low wages and no protection. If they are found working by the police, they can be arrested or sometimes pay a bribe in exchange for turning a blind eye. It is not an ideal situation but the people do whatever they can to survive and provide for their families.
The chance of relocation to a third country that could provide asylum is very slim. The USA is the main country of resettlement for this group and the chances of this happening have become increasingly less in recent years due to the changes in policies. This is an everyday reality for tens of thousands of refugees in Malaysia, barely allowed to exist, let alone fight for a better future. They are trapped between a painful past and a bleak tomorrow; far from home, they rely only on their incredible resilience, in a present that feels like it is “frozen”.
Sajad, the Hazara Manager of the Life2Life Ampang Sewing Centre
Sajad’s parents fled Afghanistan to Iran due to persecution so he was born and raised in Iran. Later, Sajad got married and has his own family. In 2015, the family came to Malaysia when the Afghans were being oppressed in Iran. After a period of adjustment, Sajad enrolled in a training run by UNHCR which eventually led him to join a tailoring program managed by the Life2Life Ampang Sewing Centre.
Sajad started to sew things like clothes and bags. In Iran, he had learnt to sew when he was 14 years old and had worked as a tailor to support his family. Therefore, he was delighted to work and earn an allowance, so he could support his family.
When the Movement Control Order (MCO) commenced in Malaysia in mid-March 2020, Sajad received a call from Earth Heir, an NGO, asking whether the Center would be interested in sewing PPEs for medical front liners which they immediately agreed to undertake.
To meet the demand of the tall order for 30,000 pieces of PPEs, Sajad engaged 20 other skilled tailors from the Afghan refugee community to help. The group sewed medical PPE items, including jumpsuits, gowns, head covers, shoe covers, and masks. These were distributed to government clinics conducting COVID-19 screenings, and 400,000 face masks for various organisations.
Sajad is now the manager of the Ampang Sewing Centre which provides livelihood opportunities for refugees who may find it difficult to earn a living due to language barriers and other limitations.
Life2Life Social Enterprise’s role in the Ampang Sewing Centre
The brainchild of the senior committee in Elshaddai Centre, the Ampang Sewing Centre has been in operation for 1.5 years since 1 July 2019. It started with 12 Afghan refugees working as tailors which then quickly blossomed to having more than 40 refugee tailors at its peak. All these tailors have earned a good reputation for their high-quality work. Presently, there is a constant stream of customers from online orders, retail boutiques, and even some corporate promotion orders. At the same time, the Centre has sewn for requests from NGOs, churches, schools, and even individuals.
Whilst Lilian spearheads the sales and operational aspects of the Sewing Centre, Sajad has been managing the team of tailors who are skilled in cutting, sewing and designing. Meeting deadline for orders is just as important as keeping the quality of sewing above par to remain competitive in the market. At the same time, there is a line of merchandise that the Sewing Centre has developed under the brand, The Craftshop, and continuous product development is also crucial to maintain customer interest.
Having delivered several sizeable orders for both the public and private sector customers, the Sewing Centre is gearing to meet requests for high fashion orders, as well as special orders from corporate companies which may be challenging, but nothing that the Hazara tailors cannot sew.
Whilst the vision for the Sewing Centre was for it to be sustainable, the long-term goal would be for the Centre to become profitable, even to the extent of enjoying chic appeal, with future clients willing to pay premium prices for the products requested.
The plan to expand the premises to have its own shop to showcase the lines of products would help to improve the visibility of the products, as well as to have a stronger presence. These together with stringent quality control will augur well for the Centre to chart a bright new future.
Written by Andrea Lee
April 6, 2022