Her head covered with a light pink dupatta with a white border, Heena Azizi, 27, bends over a black Singer sewing machine meant for beginners. Azizi has just started learning to sew at the centre for Afghani refugee women run by non-profit Samarpan Foundation in Malviya Nagar’s Khirki Extension.
“Four years back I came to Delhi in the hope of a better life in India. I have to look after my husband and four children, and started coming to the centre to learn stitching from 11am to 2pm every day, five days ago” she tells Lounge while practising a running stitch on a small yellow piece of cloth.
Azizi’s parents, sisters and brothers still live in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. She is, naturally, worried for them after the Taliban’s takeover. “When I got married 11 years ago, the situation was better there. Now, people are afraid. When I talked to my parents on Monday night, they told me that no one steps out of home. One of my brothers used to work at the Kabul airport but now he is at home.”
Living in India
While her family hopes to come to India, Azizi says living as a refugee in Delhi brings its own set of problems. Many of them are still awaiting refugee cards issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and often there is no work. Without the UNHCR refugee card, which doubles as an identity card and proof of their status as stateless people, getting a job, travelling, and even opening a bank account or getting a mobile phone connection becomes difficult.
“My husband is unemployed and depressed most of the time. We will have to move to cheaper accommodation soon. The monthly rent of ₹11,000 is too high right now,” says Azizi, who lives in Malviya Nagar.
Things were not so bad as long as her father in-law sent money, but he was recently killed by the Taliban. “My brother-in-law, who used to teach in a school, is on the Taliban hitlist and is in hiding. My husband’s life was in danger and that is why we came to India.”
Despite the difficulties, Azizi says she likes living in India where she has made Indian friends who help her. She has tasted freedom, can wear clothes of her choice and roam the city with her husband. “I like coming to the centre to learn as I never received an education. When I was growing up, girls were not allowed to go to school.” Besides stitching, she hopes to learn English.
The centre to teach Afghani refugee women skills to help them earn a livelihood was set up six years ago. Over the years, about 500 women have been trained. “The aim is to give them work,” says Mehjabeen Sultana from Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, who teaches at the centre.
After a six-month basic course in sewing, the women start the intermediate course. Both courses are free. “After completion of the course, they can work as tailors and embroiderers. A lot of them are adept at quereshi work or crochet,” says Sultana, who has done an ITI course in stitching. About 50-60 women come to the two-room centre daily and learn how to make baby’s clothes, blouses, churidars, kurta-pyjama and salwar-kameez sets.
Hemlata Verma, who manages the the centre for Samarpan, says the response has been good. “We provide all materials to the women. They can work here or at home, but the quereshi work is mainly done here.”
Shradha Vedbrat, co-founder and trustee of Samarpan, says the organisation provides training irrespective of whether the women have the UN identity cards. “Their products are sold at exhibitions but for over a year now such events are not taking place. There is a lack of funding too, which is a big problem.”
Stitching a future
Tamanna Firozi, who is in her late 20s and hails from Kabul, has completed the basic and intermediate courses. “Nothing can be done about the Taliban returning. My family came to India in 2015 as it is a safe country. We don’t want to go back. But getting the UN card is difficult,” says Firozi, pointing to Guljan working close by who is still without it after three years.
Parveen Kokar, dressed in black, accompanied by her small daughter in a bright pink dress, shows off her beautiful embroidery and crochet. “I have been crying over the past few days thinking about my family back home. I can’t focus on anything. I am so worried. I have been trying to make an embroidered mask for two days and it is still unfinished. We never thought the Taliban would return like this,” she says, breaking down in tears. Her brother and mother are still in Kabul. “I was lucky that I escaped but many unfortunate souls are stuck there,” says Kokar, who arrived in Delhi with her husband four years ago. She says it was a “very different kind of a feeling” to live in a country where there is no restriction on women’s movement and it took her a while to adjust.
Azizi says she has often asked her sister to move to India. “She refuses and asks what kind of lives we have as refugees in India. Of course, I would like to live in my own country with dignity, but here we are safe,” she says explaining that Kabul was captured smoothly by the Taliban, but in her hometown of Kandahar, fighting continued for two months. ”Many people were killed," she says.
Most of the families who came to India three to four years ago migrated to escape the Taliban or in search of work. “The situation was not conducive for a peaceful life back there. Jobs were few and only the men got work,” Firozi says. “Here there is no fear even though covid-19 has affected orders,” Firozi says, adding that she would make about ₹10,000 a month before the pandemic.
Verma says that the women often recall the good times of their lives back in Afghanistan. “Many of them had their own houses. Here, they cannot open bank accounts and do not have any permanent address. But they do not like talking about their past and what they’ve lost,” she says.
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