By Zia Ur Rehman
July 30, 2019
KARACHI — Afghan refugee women living in Karachi are gaining valuable skills that enable them to earn a living making and selling exquisite handcrafted bangles, earrings and necklaces.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) last November opened the Artisans’ Skills Development Projects for Refugees in Karachi.
The skills development centre is in a tiny flat in Al-Asif Square, a neighbourhood situated in the city’s outskirts, where most of the residents are Afghan refugees.
Together with Aik Hunar Aik Nagar (AHAN), a Karachi-based organisation supporting micro and small enterprises across the country, the training centre for embroidery, tailoring and jewellery making has trained dozens of women — mostly Afghan refugee women — in special crafts and marketing skills.
After undergoing training for several months, the women showed off their talent March 4 at a fashion show jointly organised by the UNHCR and Pakistani fashion designer Huma Adnan in the affluent area of Clifton, Karachi.
Pakistan’s top models showcased the women’s jewellery made of ceramic beads, fabric, stones and metals as they walked the catwalk.
The fashion show gave the artisans and the project great visibility, and on May 28 a group of 25 women received their first paychecks.
“I am feeling strong and independent after getting my first wages for my work,” Malaika Qahar, one of the Afghan refugee women who received training, said in July.
Earning a living “boosted our confidence and changed our lives”, she said.
Turning refugees into entrepreneurs
The skills development centre’s main purpose is to help Afghan refugee women become financially self-reliant, UNHCR Pakistan Country Representative Ruvendrini Menikdiwela said at the centre’s inauguration last November 19.
The training will not only help Afghan female refugees to become self-reliant in Pakistan; it will improve their future economic prospects upon their return to Afghanistan, Menikdiwela said in an earlier interview.
“A project like this will have a great impact on the lives of these vulnerable people,” she said. “Such an initiative will improve the income-generating capacity of refugees.”
FNKAsia, the fashion brand headed by Adnan, is also part of the initiative and signed a statement of co-operation with the UNHCR in June. The brand taught refugee women how to make jewellery and market their products.
“The training curriculum focuses on improving the jewellery produced and enhancing refugees’ marketing and business skills,” Adnan said in an interview.
All trainees receive tool kits or sewing machines so that they can work after the training ends, she said.
“The exhibition’s main aim is to link the artisans with national markets,” she added.
Afghan women learn many amateur skills at home from their mothers — such as embroidery, hand stitching and weaving, said Fatima, one of the Afghan refugees who underwent training.
“But this training helped us to understand current market trends and improve marketing skills,” she said.
Bringing opportunities to refugee communities
Afghan refugees in Karachi welcomed the opening of the Artisans’ Skills Development Projects for Refugees.
Mohammad Ismail, a 57-year-old Afghan refugee, lives in Al-Asif Square and has two daughters. He said he always wanted to send his daughters for training, but for a mason and a day labourer, the opportunity was out of reach.
“First, I could not afford the fee … and second, I could not send them far from Al-Asif Square,” he said. “But setting up a centre in our neighbourhood is great news not only for women but also for their parents.”
Al-Asif Square is a large apartment complex comprised of about 1,300 flats and 800 shops. Almost 80% of residents are from Afghanistan, mainly from Kabul, Balkh and Kunduz provinces.
Camp Jadeed, Karachi’s only Afghan refugee camp, is situated a few miles away. There, most of the inhabitants — both men and women — weave carpets by hand.
“Refugees are employed in makeshift factories, and carpets woven by them are sold to local traders,” said Haji Abdullah, an Afghan community leader in Karachi.
The traders then export these carpets to a large number of countries, including in Europe and the Gulf, in return for huge profits, he said.
“Initiatives such as skills development centres for women can help Afghan refugees show their work globally and become financially self-reliant,” Abdullah said.
Pakistan hosts about 1.4 million Afghan refugees, according to the UNHCR. Some 63,000 Afghan refugee with Proof of Registration cards, a document issued by the UNHCR and Pakistani government, reside in Sindh Province, mostly in Karachi.