Sewing a better future

Proud of their skills: The Kachin women displaying their handmade items at the varsity.

HELPING communities should not just be about donating goods.

While short-term help is necessary, community engagement is needed if the objective is to transform lives, said International Medical University (IMU) Community Engagement dean Prof Khoo Suan Phaik.

The varsity’s community engagement efforts, she said, are increasingly being designed to create more sustainable outcomes for various communities impacted by health inequalities and poverty.

“One should not go in with one’s agenda of what constitutes giving or engaging without focusing on the real, broader issues such as accumulative health issues arising from inaccessible health services.

“Community engagement provides experiential learning for students and we need to do more. We must enable communities to be proactive, empowering them to create or seize opportunities,“ she added in a press release.

As part of the varsity’s community engagement efforts through its IMU Cares platform, the Kachin community in the country was gifted with 10 sewing machines during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

More recently, IMU Cares has teamed up with Uniqlo and the Women’s Aid Organisation to establish the Digital Literacy and Entrepreneurship for Women Programme, which would help increase women’s capacity towards building resilience and financial independence.

This is a six-month programme that will deliver a series of workshops to 20 women from refugee communities and those from shelter homes and low-cost-housing within the Klang Valley.

Through this initiative, the Kachin women who benefited from the sewing machines will be able to pick up some information technology skills, hence enabling them to expand their skills from product making to product merchandising, Prof Khoo said, adding that this year will see the varsity continuing to focus on specific issues faced by vulnerable communities.

Htoi San Nhkum, also known as Sam, who is a refugee from Myanmar heading the Kachin Refugee Centre, said refugees do not want to rely on handouts and want to work towards self-efficacy.

“While we are always grateful to our host country Malaysia and have gained from so much help and support, we also want to be independent and secure a better future for ourselves. We want to prepare for our lives beyond the restrictions we now face,” she said.

“We could start making side income from sewing now, but we really need to improve the quality of our products so we can sell. We also need help with marketing,” she added.

During the pandemic, the Kachin women, having undergone training arranged by IMU, made 17,000 face masks, over 1,000 head covers and 75 disposable gowns, which were donated to frontliners.

The sewing project gave the refugee women an income, which compensated for the loss of casual work during the lockdown.

But for Sam and her community, it was not just about the immediate income, but also the potential that the 10 sewing machines promised, which enabled them to think of future projects.

At the International Women’s Day celebration held at IMU in March, the Kachin women demonstrated their enthusiasm, while displaying an array of handmade items which were produced for the sewing project during the pandemic.

As of last January, there were 181,510 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR in Malaysia.

Some 155,610 were from Myanmar, comprising 103,560 Rohingyas, 22,580 Chins, and 29,470 other ethnic groups from conflict-affected areas or fleeing persecution in the country.

The remaining individuals were 25,900 refugees and asylum-seekers from 50 countries fleeing war and persecution in countries including Yemen and Syria.

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