Empowering Immigrants Through Skills Training

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Nov 26, 2020
by Salam Dharejo
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Empowering Immigrants Through Skills Training

Award-winning journalist and social development professional Salam Dharejo discusses how learning to stitch has improved the lives of hundreds of people in Karachi, Pakistan Several women practice stitching in a learning center (Picture supplied by Salam Dharejo)

The life of someone residing in Akber Shah colony, the residential area of the fisher Bengali and Rohingya immigrants, is a struggle. An open-drain cuts through the settlement and streams its sewage into the sea; polythene bags float on the surface; plastic pipes from nearby houses lead into this dirty water body, and there are more houseflies than mosquitoes lurking around. A myriad of smells, including fish and human excrement, greet a first-time visitor to the colony in Karachi's coastal area.

This squatter settlement is spread over miles of brick huts with tin roofs, filthy streets full of half-naked children roaming around and sitting in front of tiny homes. It portrays the gloomy picture of the life that immigrant fishers are living without services and hopes. More than 150,000 inhabitants live here, mostly of Bengali and Burmese descent, who occupy the fishing industry's lowest rung. Life starts here before the sun rises. Men make their way to the sea, and they remain on boats sometimes many days searching for fish. The women left behind have to take care of everything, including rearing children and work as daily wagers.

Fishing has been declining for many years – since the sector turned into an industry, and investors had a license to catch the fish depriving rights of local anglers who were restricted to catch fishes in particular zones. But during the pandemic, it has been almost closed, and subsequent lockdowns in the city have restricted human mobility. Hence, unemployment and poverty have knocked on fishers' doors, who already were running short of food and rations at home. Thus, panicked women desperately started searching for the opportunity to earn to feed children and their families.

There was no way to make money in silent streets and closed markets. Women took out stitching machines and put up small cloth banners on their small gates: "low price stitching available here." Neighbors started peeping at the banners and came up with cloths to make dresses for their children and family to commemorate Eid. There were almost 125 girls and women who learned stitching skills in the centers established by the Pakistan FisherFolk Forum with the support of Volkswagen Employees Federation (VWEF) and the collaboration of Terre des Hommes Germany.

Due to COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown, local families rushed to those skilled women to prepare the clothes for children to celebrate Eid. Based on responses from the women and data from partners, it is estimated the women generated more than 500 EUR within a couple of days. "[COVID-19]  became the blessing in disguise. I generated more than 5,000 PKR [and], in addition, prepared new dresses for my three children," said Fatima, a 24-year-old Bengali immigrant who lives in Akber Shah Colony.

Not only has the skill helped trainees meet their living expenses, but they've also used it to re-enter education. Malika, a 17-year-old Rohingya immigrant, said, "I left the school once my stepfather forced me to leave the home. I started living with my married sister, who was not able to afford education for me. When the stitching center [was] established by [the Pakistan] FisherFolk Forum, I applied for training because I wanted to learn [a] skill for income generation so that I may resume education. It was a joyful day when I, after completion of [the] training course, earned 500 PKR stitching two dresses and asked my sister that I want to resume education paying this money as fees to [the] school. My sister was happy with my decision, and I have been consistently attending school and generating money, which in most of the cases, I do share with my sister to meet the living expenses."

Farzana, a Bengali immigrant, was miserable working as a domestic laborer. Aged 21, she was divorced and caring for her three-year-old daughter. She regularly walked half an hour to work in the nearby residential area for a monthly income of 15 EUR. She said, "It was a terrible experience being a young domestic worker to face the mental and physical abuse during the work. I thought many times to quit the job, but there was no option. Then I came to know that free stitching training is being provided by the organization, I did apply as [a] trainee, and within three months of training, I learned the skill and started stitching at home." Now, Farzana's life has changed for the better. She added, "I am earning more than 50 EUR per month and feeling relieved that my daughter would be able to study in school because I can afford her school fees since I am self-employed."

The small panaflex banners hanging on the doors, which read “low price dress designers” are increasing with the passage of time. More girls are adopting stitching skills and creating business. They dream of becoming enterprenuers and linking their skills with the nearby booming textile industry. This year has presented many challenges, but it has also provided opportunities to create many positive futures.


Salam Dharejo is a Salzburg Global Fellow who is currently taking part in the Asia Peace Innovators Forum, a program held in partnership with the Nippon Foundation. Sign up for our newsletter here to receive updates about this program.