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Refugees in Indonesia learn to beat doom and gloom

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Read story at Deutsche Welle here or below. Published August, 2018.

While thinking about the future a few years ago, Ayana*, from Ethiopia, could not have imagined that one day she would be living in Indonesia or studying English at a refugee-run learning center in Jakarta.

The Health, Education and Learning Program (HELP) for refugees brings together students of all ages from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Iraq, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Ayana, a mother in her early 30s, had never been to school before now. “This is the first time I have picked up a pen and I can say that I truly understand the value of education. Now I am reading and preparing for my lessons and my mind is open, and step-by-step, if I keep going, everything will be okay,” she told DW.

There are around 13,800 refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia, where rights are restricted and refugees cannot work or access higher education. Traditionally, Indonesia was purely a place of transit, a stop on the way to countries where refugees could meet their basic needs and live with dignity, or wait to be resettled. However, the situation has changed. As the global political climate toward refugees grows more hostile and resettlement countries like Australia and the US implement harsher policies, the five-year waiting period for a scarce resettlement location could well become 25 years. In late 2017, the UNHCR started informing refugees that most would never be resettled.

Hazara refugees start HELP

Mohammad Baqir Bayani, 20, from Afghanistan started HELP together with a fellow refugee last year. “Normally refugees don’t have anything to do, so they sit at home in their rooms and think about the past and what will happen tomorrow. The main goal behind our project is to give them a meaningful reason to go out, to learn something positive, and get themselves busy with educational and skills empowerment activities.”

The school now has 100 students. In the mornings, children and teenagers have classes in English, Maths, Science, Social Studies, Life Skills and Art. Adults come in the afternoon to learn English, Bahasa Indonesia, personal accounting and soft skills.

Generating optimism and and hope is what motivates Baqir. “Helping others is fulfilling. Although you don’t get something material in your hands, you get a feeling of satisfaction in your heart.”

Women refugees cutting patterns (DW/G. Harvey)

The refugee support group offers women refugees a sense of purpose and dignity.

The other founder of HELP is an entrepreneur who has gotten a number of projects off the ground. One of these is the Refugee Women Support Group, which offers English and sewing classes, as well as health workshops, in a mountain town about 70 kilometers south of Jakarta. Kalsoom Jaffari, 30, from Pakistan, started the group with just a few people in 2013, knitting headbands and purses, which evolved to include a sewing machine and 20 women who bring their own fabric over to make dresses. A couple of years later, Kalsoom teamed up with an Australian PhD student to create Beyond the Fabric, a non-profit online label that sells pants and clutch bags made by the refugee women.

A new line of work

There are now 60 women involved and many more sewing machines. “Some come regularly, and some do embroidery from home. We have cutting class on Tuesday and sewing and making things on Friday,” Kalsoom explained over a cup of coffee in her lounge room, which doubles as the activity room where classes happen. This initiative not only fosters a sense of purpose and dignity, helping to combat the negative feelings that come with living in limbo, it also enables the women to buy things like “snacks for their children, scarves and sanitary pads.”

“We have seen a big change in our community. In the beginning the husbands would not allow their wives to come alone to class. They would sit downstairs and wait. But now the husbands see that their wives are learning new skills and that it’s a safe space, and they don’t come anymore. A proud moment for me is when the women are working late on orders, and their husbands call to say they have made dinner and fed the kids.”

Providing legal aid for refugees

Three people in front of a computer (RAIC)

RAIC founders Mozhgan (left) and Jafar (center) get the news that a donor will help provide housing for families who were sleeping on the street.

Back in Jakarta, the Refugees and Asylum Seekers Information Center (RAIC) is another refugee-led initiative, improving the lives of refugees who have fallen through the cracks. RAIC is an online hub providing all kinds of  information in five different languages, as well as access to legal services, monthly eye check-ups, care packages and self-guided mental health journals. The founders are Iranian best friends, Mozhgan Moarefizadeh and Jafar Salemi, both 27, who even got their refugee cards on the same day. They were volunteering as interpreters during legal aid interviews and became focal points for refugees, fielding a range of questions, and as the questions kept on coming, they decided to create a platform to help as many people as possible.

“When we see people in an even worse situation than we are, we say, well that needs to be fixed. We need to find a solution for that, and if we cannot solve it, we contact everyone we know,” Jafar told DW. “We are like the middle person, connecting refugees with other organizations. And we are having a real impact on people’s lives.”

The pair became paralegals and have helped refugees appeal their cases, find sponsors and be released from detention. “For me, the proudest moment is when people get their refugee cards after being rejected the first time. It’s really saving lives because they don’t have to go back to their country anymore,” Mozhgan said.

In a context where refugees are on the fringes without rights and living in a protracted state of transit, refugee-led initiatives fill a tremendous gap. While some global leaders are doing their best to shut out people who are full of potential, refugees in Indonesia are doing their best to give their state of limbo some meaning.

*Name changed to protect privacy.