TANJUNG BUNGAH: War, persecution, death and suffering. Oppressive conditions such as these have forced many to flee their countries with their families in tow, for a chance at a better life in a foreign land.
Sadly, once there, many find they cannot obtain decent jobs or even send their kids to school.
This is the heartbreaking reality of the countless refugees from Afghanistan and Myanmar who Julie Das, 49, works with at ‘Greater Action’, an NGO she co-founded with Dr Shazwan Sahabudeen, a healthcare advisor.
With over 180,000 refugees seeking asylum in Malaysia, Das explains that most of these refugees end up working long hours at large factories, at below-minimum wages just so their families don’t go hungry.
Now there’s light at the end of the tunnel as Greater Action is breaking this cycle by providing sustainable businesses that empower these refugees.
Das and her team of volunteers watch over 250 refugee families, providing them with basic necessities, medical assistance as well as education for their kids, all through Greater Action.
Asides from these initiatives, Greater Action is also equipping these refugees with the necessary skills they need so they can earn a living independently.
“It’s really important that we build something sustainable, so it’s not just us feeding them,” Das tells FMT, adding that the system not only helps those in need, but gives back to the community as well.
Greater Action’s sustainable projects has empowered 10 Afghan families so far through self-sufficient cooking, baking and tailoring services.
Each product is packed with love from an Afghan woman who is now able to use the income generated from her business to support her family.
Das relates the story of a chef who fled Afghanistan with her parents and now uses her earnings to support her bedridden father.
“Both parents were very old and her mother passed away in Malaysia due to negligence and lack of funds to bring her to a doctor,” Das says, adding that the girl’s father is now bedridden.
“Now all the money she earns through her cooking goes towards settling her father’s monthly medical bills.”
Das also tells FMT about a refugee couple who both took up tailoring as a means to earn a living when they came to Malaysia. She says the husband was an IT engineer back home while his wife worked as a mathematics and physics teacher.
However, the harsh reality of life as a refugee sank in once they got here. “When I met the wife, she was very depressed. She told me she wanted to work but could hardly speak English.
“We found her a machine, to keep her from overthinking so she could keep herself busy with sewing,” Das says, explaining that the former teacher used to sew as a hobby before.
“Today she’s my head tailor and her husband is even better than her,” Das says, laughing at how the couple often tease each other about their sewing skills.
Greater Action’s tailoring team can sew anything your heart desires from beautiful bags to soft quilts, colourful cushion covers and even wedding dresses.
“We once worked with a hospital to make PPE masks which was great,” Das says, explaining that they would love to handle more “big orders.”
“We also did a hamper for a company which was a lot of work but it’s really nice when companies want to order meaningful hampers,” she says with a smile adding that it’s way better than receiving a hamper with the label ‘Made in China’ on it.
With a new government firmly in control in Afghanistan, Das notes that many Afghan refugees had become deeply anxious about the wellbeing of their loved ones back home.
“Many of them don’t have news from their loved ones, be it parents, grandparents and friends,” Das says.
“When they fled their country, not everyone fled and some of them came alone leaving their parents behind so it’s terrible when they hear that their village has been taken over,” she says, adding that many have lost family members due to bombings.
Now while seeking refuge in Malaysia, Greater Action is helping them find a purpose in life and earn a living for themselves amid the anguish they carry in their hearts for those they left behind.