Afghan refugee women in New Delhi stitching their way to freedom
Started by Bishwadeep Moitra and his wife Iris Strill in 2018, 'SilaiWali' has two mottos-- to do ethical and environment-friendly work and to stand in solidarity with those who need it the most
Working with Afghan refugees was an eye-opener for me. It showed me the beautiful culture of Afghanistan, the honesty and the humaneness. I came across a culture that is extremely fine in its behaviour,” says Bishwadeep Moitra, founder of SilaiWali, a Delhi-based organisation that works with Afghan women.
Started by Moitra and his wife Iris Strill in 2018, SilaiWali has two mottos-- to do ethical and environment-friendly work and to stand in solidarity with those who need it the most. Moitra says that’s where their tagline also came from- “A stitch against waste. A stitch for freedom.”
Delivering on their promise of sustainability, SilaiWali recycles a lot of waste fabric from some of Delhi’s garment manufacturing units, which would have otherwise gone to landfills.
Supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Geneva-based organisation Made51, which is mandated to market refugee products globally, SilaiWali, in turn, supports Afghan women refugees, most of whom belong to the Hazara community (one of the most persecuted communities in Afghanistan).
Moitra says that since a lot of Afghan women live near Delhi’s Khriki Extension, they started a centre there so that these women are not far away from their children and do not have to rely on public transport to reach their workplace. Interestingly, adds Moitra, the refugee women did not require any training as they already had the traditional skills of crocheting and sewing.
However, he did train them in using their skills to make contemporary and modern sellable items for the international market.
Having worked closely with refugees, Moitra says that a lot of people have reached out to him over the years, looking to find a way to make a living. This only increased in the last few months as the crisis in Afghanistan worsened. But contrary to what one would expect, such calls have now decreased, since only a few hundred Afghan refugees have been able to reach India, since the Taliban took control of Kabul.
“These refugees have only each other, and their own community to fall back upon, and fellow refugees as their only support group. They are all guests in a country where they were not invited,” says Moitra, talking about the many challenges his employees face. He adds that since a lot of refugees do not have legal papers, they miss out on things like insurance and other social benefits. “As an employer, I want my team to be happy and healthy, but the option of doing that is not there for me,” he sighs.
It’s been three years since he started SilaiWali and now Moitra feels that what Rabindranath Tagore wrote in his short story, Kabuliwala, over a hundred years ago, still holds true.
The warmth and generosity of the people of Afghanistan that he wrote about then, is still the same, he says.
Having gained experience in working with refugees over the past three years, Moitra and Strill now wish to expand SilaiWali and open a centre in France as well. Moitra says, “My wife is French, and France anyway has a lot of refugees, so we want to try to replicate there, what we are doing here.”