KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters Life!) - Hunched over sewing machines, a group of Myanmar women refugees are stitching together a livelihood after fleeing persecution from the junta back home.
Their simple but modern take on traditional Burmese fabrics draws a steady flow of orders online (www.elevyn.com) and visitors to a crowded shoplot in a working class district within the Malaysian capital.
With a little cash, these women have become the financial backbone of ethnic Chin community, whose numbers in Malaysia have grown to 39,000 people in ten years as the military campaign of forced labor and razing of villages continues in Myanmar.
But life in Malaysia is not easy either. Classified as illegal immigrants under Malaysian laws, the refugees cannot find jobs and get access to basic education and healthcare. They run the risk of arrest and deportation.
“My husband is working but he is afraid of the local authorities. He won’t get any pay this month, so it is difficult for our family,” Ma Dwang, a 35-year-old mother of three, told Reuters. “I can earn some income and with that money our family survives but we cannot afford new clothes.”
Around her, women were cutting out fabrics and piecing together elaborate shawls, bags and table runners. They each earn about 200-300 ringgit ($62-$93) a month, just enough for basic food and medical items as well as some savings.
The collective started in 2005 with just 20 women and has grown to 50. The Chin community, which started the project with assistance from United Nations High Commission for Refugees, calls the group “Mang Tha” or “Sweet Dreams” in their language.
The women say the project makes them assertive and gives them a haven from their cramped flats that shelter more than 30 refugees at any one time.
As the women chat and work, the topic centres around their previous lives as subsistence farmers in the mountainous, resource rich Chin state in northwest Myanmar that borders India and Bangladesh.
But more often, the women recall the persecution that their Christian communities suffered in the hands of the mostly Buddhist Myanmar government.
“There was forced labor for women. If roads need to be repaired, the soldiers call us and we would have to go. There was alot of sexual abuse,” said Susan, one of the women in the collective who declined to give her full name.
“They (the soldiers) look down on us, they oppress. Most of the Chin people don’t have any rights so we came here. Those left in Chin state are old people,” said Susan, who was a teacher back home.
The Mang Tha women estimate more than 1 million people have fled Chin state to India, Bangladesh and Thailand. To get to Malaysia, it takes one month by road or sea.
Most are glad to make it out alive and want to work toward getting resettled in Australia and the United States with the skills they learned at the collective.
“I always hope to resettle in another country for my children’s education. I will not go back for the sake of my children’s future,” said Ayemai as she nursed one of her children at the workshop.
Writing by Niluksi Koswanage, editing by Miral Fahmy