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Myanmar refugee Sui Par, who fled her homeland with her three children in tow, is determined to make a difference in the lives of other women in a similar situation, writes RACHAEL PHILIP

EARNING a living gives you a sense of worth. It keeps you sane, helps pay the bills and feed the children. Myanmar refugee Sui Par knows this only too well.

When her husband died years ago, she became the sole breadwinner, taking care of her family of three children.

To earn an income, she learned to sew from her mother and became a tailor. Then things changed. One day, her eldest daughter was taken away as a forced labourer to build roads in a different township. When the daughter showed up sick one day, Sui Par decided she had to leave her country.

So she fled and arrived in Malaysia. As Malaysia did not recognise refugees, once more she found it tough to provide for her family. She had few skills, so she turned to what she did best — sewing.

“It was the only thing I could do in this country,” says Sui Par, 39, through an interpreter.

Tailoring allowed her to work from home, so she could mind her children as she cut and sewed.

A Myanmar Chin refugee, Sui Par comes from the Thantlang township in the Chin state in west Myanmar - she often gathers with friends at the Alliance Of Chin Refugees on the first floor of a shoplot in a busy part of KL.

There, she learned of Mang Tha (Sweet Dreams), a Chin community project that empowers women by equipping them with practical skills. Petite Sui Par, always with a ready smile, liked the idea and immediately offered herself and her talent.

About 10 women gather in a scruffy-looking room, sitting or standing around three tables. Some are huddled over their knitting, chatting and laughing as they work, while others gather around Sui Par, watching intently as she cuts out a pattern on a dark piece of fabric. They are learning to sew trousers this week.

Besides sewing and knitting, embroidery is one of the courses available through the Mang Tha programme, which started in 2005. Learning a skill allows the women to take home about RM500 a month.

It may not sound like much but it helps with the groceries and, most importantly, the women can take their work home. They come to the centre about once a week for classes, then they work from home the rest of the week. The women can plan a flexible working schedule and keep an eye on their children.

Sui Par smiles as she recalls one woman exclaiming: “What? Pregnant women in Mang Tha can work too?”

Kyu Kyu, 23, a coordinator for Mang Tha and a Chin refugee herself, says: “Ninety per cent of the sales of their work goes back to the women. This year alone, 75 refugee women have received some form of income from Mang Tha.”

Sui Par’s three children are aged 19, 18 and 16 and two are working as sales assistants. Now that they have grown up, Sui Par can make the time to teach sewing at another Chin centre in Selayang.

Mang Tha has 11 sewing machines, mostly donated by supporters and volunteers, and recently qualified for the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees’ small grants programme which gives up to RM10,000.

With the basics taught to them by Sui Par, such as attaching zippers and making button holes, the women are also able to produce scores of other accessories and crafts for Mang Tha. For the year-end festive season, for instance, the women have been working very hard, making bags, Christmas tree ornaments, table cloth and table runners.

The other groups have been busy knitting scarves and shawls which volunteers — mostly expatriates — have taken home to sell during the holidays. The volunteers also held bazaars or parties, not unlike the Tupperware parties, at their homes to promote Mang Tha products.

Prior to this the women were trained on quality control and the marketability of their products. If, initially, their preference was to knit green with purple motifs, today they proudly display earthy shades of soft mufflers.

Another set of products that sells very well are household items made from beautiful hand-woven Chin fabrics. These are turned into table runners, cushion covers and bags.

The black fabrics, with vibrant green or red hand-woven designs along the border, immediately stand out, looking very traditional yet modern at the same time.

A designer’s playground, it’s no wonder that local fashion designer Datuk Bernard Chandran has agreed to give Mang Tha a helping hand by designing bags.

Mang Tha volunteers are also working on shipping in three bamboo looms so that the women can start weaving their own fabrics.

Sui Par’s three children have learned a little sewing from their mother.

But she’s hoping they will learn other skills too. The family is keen to improve their grasp of the English language, so with the help of a dictionary, they spend time reading in their home in Jalan Pudu.


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