Setting Female Refugees
  On The Path To A Better Life

Guiding Female Refugees to a Healthier Life -
Photo Credit: Sabrina Toppa
Kalsoom Jaffari, the woman behind Refugee Women Support Group Indonesia, is leading a stranded community to better health while they wait for resettlement overseas.

Milford Milford Kalsoom Jaffari, 29, is shuffling around the room, holding a pair of scissors, which she uses to cut up a sheaf of newspaper spread across the carpeted floor. After some careful incisions, she has the outline of a pant-leg prepared in newspaper form.

When the dozen or so women clustered around her are ready, Jaffari will demonstrate how to create a pant using real cloth. Until then, she distributes donated scissors among the women, asking them to follow her instructions using the newspaper material as practice.

Here in Indonesia’s hillside community of Bogor, back-dropped by Mount Salak and an hour’s drive from the capital Jakarta, a small group of Indonesia’s 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers are stranded in a transit limbo. Most hail from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq.

Persecuted in their homelands, many refugee women are unable to return home or seek swift resettlement in nearby Australia, the target destination for so many of the women Jaffari helps. Almost all of the women arrived on perilous journeys to Indonesia via rickety boats.

Jaffari herself was born in Pakistan, which is home to the second-largest refugee population in the world: Afghans. With almost 3 million Afghans fleeing their homeland last year, the country has sent 2.59 million refugees to Pakistan alone, while the rest moved further afield to Europe, North America and southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Refugee Agency.

Jaffari’s own ethnic community – the predominantly Shia Hazara – dominate the population of refugees fleeing both Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the last year alone, Hazaras have come under gunfire from a range of groups, including the Taliban and ISIS. In one gruesome incident last November in southern Afghanistan, ISIS decapitated seven Hazaras by razor wire.

Jaffari is a former health coordinator who spent many years in her homeland of Pakistan toiling for the betterment of refugee communities in terms of health and education. Jaffari’s work took her to the remotest areas of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where she conducted field visits to camps swelling with Afghan refugees displaced by the ongoing conflict.

As an aid worker for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, Jaffari never expected to join the globe’s population of 14 million refugees herself. But after receiving direct threats from the Taliban, she had no choice. She says her opinion of refugees shifted radically as a result of her firsthand experiences.

“Before we had mercy for refugees, but now I am in their situation. Now the other people feel pity for me,” she says to me in the living room of her house in Bogor, while giving instructions to refugee women in Hazaragi, the language of the Hazaras.

Jaffari now leads the Refugee Women Support Group Indonesia, a group formed last year to conduct a series of female-focused workshops on health, hygiene and education in an informal setting.

“I’m not like other girls where I get married and sit at home,” she says about her upbringing.

Among the 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers hosted by Indonesia, a significant portion is made up of women awaiting news from the UN Refugee Agency about their resettlement timeline. The wait, a type of transit limbo that may stretch out over years, means hundreds are clustered in cheaper accommodation found in outlying areas like Bogor.

All of the refugees are banned from working or studying, so tedium and financial insecurity are the key hallmarks of life in a “passage country” like Indonesia, which is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention protecting refugee rights.

Last year, the impact of Jaffari’s workshops prompted community trainer Rhonda Balzan Bastow to set up a $5,000 GoFundMe campaign to raise money for health kits, sewing machines and dressmaking materials.

Most of the funding for the Refugee Women Support Group Indonesia comes from individual donations from foreigners (mostly Australians) who personally meet with Jaffari and witness the transformative impact of her lessons.

The impetus for creating the workshops lies in the unaddressed health problems faced by female refugees, who do not always have adequate resources to access quality or affordable medical treatment. Jaffari’s health and hygiene workshops minimize poor health outcomes and advocate preventative measures designed to lower health risks.

Exercise and good diet and sleep are advised. Most significantly, Jaffari tries to combat the stigma attached to discussing female health problems, which might otherwise dissuade a woman from addressing her health problems at all.

“Many women don’t have the level of confidence required to share problems with us,” Jaffari says. “I break the barrier. I tell them, ‘I have this problem and I take this treatment.’ At the end, they all say they have the same problem.”

“I tell them: ‘Being a girl, I don’t feel shy sharing health problems. Being a female, you can share with me any type of problem you might be experiencing.'”

Instead of remaining idle or homebound, Jaffari champions an active lifestyle filled with activities that promote better health in body and mind. Her skills-based approach empowers women to learn the tools that might help them integrate better in their target countries, as well as the coping strategies to combat the boredom of long periods of wait in transit countries.

In doing this, Jaffari restores dignity to women who have long been out of the job market and traditional school environment. The formal structure of her workshops gives women a schedule in an otherwise monotonous day and a place to energize their creativity and intellect.

Still, Jaffari admits that it’s not easy to contend with the prohibitively high cost of treatment or medication in Indonesia, where refugees claim pharmacies and even hospitals might levy a different fee on local vs. foreign patients.

“The medicines are very expensive [in Indonesia],” she explains. “Last time, I fell down from the stairs and suffered back injuries. I visited the hospital and the pharmacy staff only gave me expensive prescriptions.”

Jaffari criticizes a rampant practice by Indonesian health workers of overcharging refugees: “They make a fool out of me and take extra money.”

On other days, Jaffari helps refugee women stay positive by working on arts and handicraft classes, English lessons and sewing projects. Collectively, she is working to ensure that when refugee women in Bogor are approved for resettlement to another country, they will have skills to apply for jobs, in addition to the good health to take them.

Even after Jaffari is selected for resettlement abroad, she hopes to continue working with refugee populations, particularly in the health or education field.

For her, health education is a central component of female education. In her own family, Jaffari’s father passed away at a young age, compelling her mother to work outside the home. In a cultural milieu where men, not women, function as the traditional breadwinners, her mother’s economic independence transformed her into a role model to emulate.

“If you want to change your community, you should invest in women,” Jaffari says. “Women control the whole family. If the mother is educated, the whole family is educated.”


Writer Sabrina ToppaSabrina Toppa is a Pakistan-based journalist whose work has appeared in TIME, NBC News, VICE, GOOD Magazine and other outlets. Follow her on Twitter @SabrinaToppa.

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