Myan­mar refugees band to­gether

Myam­mar women refugees are band­ing to­gether to lift up their spir­its amid harsh liv­ing con­di­tions here.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By TAN SU-MAY star2@thes­

We want to coax Malaysians to work with us. Treat us like peo­ple, not refugees.

MYAM­MAR refugee Tanda Htun is no stranger to hard­ship. It has been six years since the 30-year-old Myam­mar woman fled the mil­i­tary regime back in her home coun­try, and still she con­tin­ues to live with fear and un­cer­tainty. In Malaysia, Tanda has worked in restau­rants and pol­ished cars at a car wash, and she con­stantly wor­ries about be­ing ar­rested by the po­lice again.

“I was a so­cial worker in Myam­mar, pro­mot­ing Mon cul­ture. But the gov­ern­ment doesn’t al­low this, they don’t want you to prac­tise your cul­ture,” says Tanda.

Although Tanda lives with five other fam­i­lies in a small flat here, and is un­sure of what her fu­ture holds, she says life here is still bet­ter than in Myam­mar.

Tanda is one of the 28,500 reg­is­tered women refugees from Myam­mar who fled to Malaysia to es­cape per­se­cu­tion un­der the mil­i­tary rule. They are hop­ing to be repa­tri­ated to a third coun­try which will grant them per­ma­nent res­i­dence. How­ever, there is no telling when and if they will even­tu­ally be repa­tri­ated. In the mean­time, they live here and try to eke out a liv­ing.

Malaysia is not a sig­na­tory of the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion Re­lat­ing to the Sta­tus of Refugees, which recog­nises the rights of refugees and ac­cords them pro­tec­tion. Un­der Malaysian law, there is no dis­tinc­tion be­tween a refugee and an il­le­gal im­mi­grant. Even if they have reg­is­tered with the United Na­tions Refugee Cen­tre (UNHCR) in Malaysia, they have no ac­cess to le­gal em­ploye­ment or for­mal ed­u­ca­tion. They can be de­tained, locked up and de­ported even if they hold a UNHCR card.

“Many of the women are de­pressed or show signs of de­pres­sion,” says Elodie Voisin, Vol­un­teer Co­or­di­na­tor at Tanma Fed­er­a­tion, a union of three Myam­mar women refugee groups based in Kuala Lumpur. “They can­not eat, they can­not sleep, they feel hope­less and live in fear ev­ery day.”

Tanma Fed­er­era­tion

There are about 98,000 refugees and asy­lum seek­ers reg­is­tered with the UNHCR in Malaysia. About 88,500 are Myam­mar na­tion­als, and they are usu­ally di­vided ac­cord­ing to their eth­nic groups. There is a sup­port net­work within these com­mu­ni­ties, and they have ini­tia­tives to help their coun­try­men cope with life here. This in­cludes set­ting up schools for the chil­dren, and in­come-gen­er­at­ing projects for the women. One of these or­gan­i­sa­tions is Tanma Fed­er­a­tion, whose mis­sion is to cre­ate a safe place for Myam­mar women to earn an in­come, pro­tect their rights and em­power them through skills learn­ing pro­grammes.

Tanma means “strength” in the Myam­mar lan­guage. Since its in­cep­tion in 2010, the or­gan­i­sa­tion has man­aged to unite and em­power some 200 Myam­mar refugee women in Malaysia.

Tanda is now con­cen­trated on mak­ing soap and mas­sage oil based on tra­di­tional Mon recipes at Kao­prise, one of the three liveli­hood projects in the Tanma Fed­er­a­tion.

Many Mon peo­ple are farm­ers who live far away from mod­ern health­care fa­cil­i­ties, they are well-versed in the art of self-rem­edy. All Kao­prise prod­ucts are or­ganic and made from plant-based in­gre­di­ents such as lemon grass, co­conut oil and vanilla.

“The co­conut oil is what my mother used on me when I was young. It is good for the skin and the hair,” says Tanda.

The other two groups in Tanma are Mang Tha (run by the Al­liance of Chin Refugees) and the Chin Women’s Or­gan­i­sa­tion (CWO). Mang Tha makes sewn and wo­ven prod­ucts such as soft bags, pouches, baby slings, pass­port hold­ers and bibs – they can ba­si­cally make any­thing that peo­ple bring to them.

Their best-sell­ing item is the baby ring sling which is al­ready be­ing sold in cer­tain baby shops in the Klang Val­ley. You will recog­nise it by the unique Chin fab­ric it is made of. All Mang Tha prod­ucts are made from this unique fab­ric which is wo­ven in the cen­tre it­self. Apar who heads Mang Tha, with her baby in her arms, shows how a woman winds yarn with a ma­chine made from a bi­cy­cle wheel. “Then they do the weav­ing in there,” she says, point­ing to a large wooden con­trap­tion that takes up an en­tire room.

Be­yond money

Tanma pro­vides the women with more than a safe place to earn in­come.

“Be­fore Tanma, the women stayed at home be­cause they were afraid to work out­side as they wor­ried about be­ing caught by Rela or the po­lice,” said Apar. “But af­ter com­ing to Mang Tha they are hap­pier, they make new friends and can share how they feel.”

Tanma is housed in a shoplot in Pudu, Kuala Lumpur. They do not only weave cloth and make soap to sell, but also at­tend classes. There are English lessons, and they also learn com­mu­ni­ca­tion, lead­er­ship, and money man­age­ment skills. Women who used to run out of the room be­cause some­one was watch­ing them speak are now dis­cussing is­sues such as hu­man rights, gen­der-based vi­o­lence and Fair Trade mar­ket­ing.

Many of these Myam­mar women also bear the re­spon­si­bilty of look­ing af­ter their chil­dren. It is not un­com­mon to find a few refugee chil­dren at the cen­tre af­ter school or ba­bies be­ing passed around while their moth­ers work. The women de­scribe com­ing to the cen­tre and feel­ing “lighter and hap­pier.”

“We for­get our stress (at home), to come to the cen­tre is very good,” says Tanda.

For her, the most valu­able thing she has gained from Tanma is con­fi­dence. She loves the train­ing pro­grammes and has picked up many skills. “I now know how to coach other women, to coun­sel peo­ple, to write pro­pos­als and to man­age women’s projects,” she says.

She put these skills to prac­tise in lead­ing Kao­prise. “Now, even the men call me when they want to dis­cuss fi­nan­cial mat­ters, or want to know how to solve cer­tain prob­lems.”

Tanma also runs classes to help Myam­mar cou­ples deal with vi­o­lence.

For many Myam­mar refugees, home is a cramped flat shared with four or five other fam­i­lies, and even sin­gle men. In this en­vi­ron­ment, it is not un­com­mon for cou­ples to

Lighter and hap­pier: apar work­ing the weav­ing loom with her six-month-old daugh­ter.

The Tanma cen­tres are also places where the women could gather and meet up with other Myam­mar women.

Soap and mas­sage oils pro­duced by the Myam­mar refugees us­ing tra­di­tional Mon recipes.

—Tanda Htun, Myam­mar refugee

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