From Runaway to Runway: Afghan Refugee Women Turns to Fashion Design

Women refugees are amongst the most vulnerable groups in Indonesia. Asides that they can’t work or study formally, chances to be resettled into a third country of destinations are increasingly smaller. But other schemes of migration, such as labor mobility bring new opportunities to start their life and settle into advanced countries.

Fresteh Jafari walks in the stage along with muses and models at the Westin hotel Jakarta last Sunday. She wears white blouse with ‘NO WAR’ handwriting highlight which she designs herself. Known as Dilla in Indonesia, the Afghan refugee brings her 3-year-old daughter into the catwalk to receive flowers as she concluded her first appearance as fashion designer, showcasing modest line of clothing’s with signature hand paintings and bright colors. ‘Bloom’ collection embodies the brimming spirits of all the female refugees in Indonesia she has been living since 2019. “The series is inspired by strong women. The story behind this collection is to explain that no matter how hard women has to fight, when we don’t give up and keep going, we’ll be able to become the most unstoppable person on this world, ” she said.

While it’s all glam and glitter on the stage, life has not been a walk in the park for Dilla. She escaped domestic violence from her war-torn country of Afghanistan and arrived in Indonesia around four years ago. Throughout her journey, she experienced living in detention camp and immigrant complex. When I asked her for her vision next year, she replies with glowing eyes, “I hope to resettle in the third country and doing my works”. Indonesia is often being a transit country for refugees and asylum seekers who want to cross to Australia. As of December 2022, UNHCR Indonesia recorded 12,706 refugees in the country, with 74% adult and 26% are children. Women refugees are 27% while men are 73%. The most vulnerable refugees in Indonesia received monthly subsistence allowance, which include unaccompanied children, single women with children and specific-needs persons.

While in Indonesia, Dilla is active to participate in local community programs, including ‘Mishka Project’ that offers trainings in fashion modelling, design and digital marketing for women refugees from Afghanistan, Sudan and Rohingya. The community founder is Ling Hida, a Sundanese female entrepreneur who have expanding business ventures that span regionally from Jakarta to Singapore under fashion brands ‘Makaila Haifa’. Hida often pair her non-profit projects that engaged refugees’ community with her commercial events at several occasions, including the annual Indonesia Fashion Week under the

consultancy of UNHCR. “The Mishka Project is part of my gratitude,” she explained, understanding the hardship of being a single mother and start her business from scratch.

According to UNHCR, resettlement to a third country is increasingly unlikely for refugees in Indonesia, as there are more than 20 million refugees globally. In 2020, only 403 refugees departed from Indonesia for resettlement. This represents 3% of the total refugee population in the country. Meanwhile in 2021, as of the end of December, 457 refugees have departed to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and United States for resettlement. As of December 2022, as many as 635 refugees departed to resettlement countries.

Complementary pathways such as education and labor mobility may be considered as alternative solutions for the refugees, although they will only be able to help a limited number of refugees and will require the flexibility of many receiving states on their migrant policy.

In 2021, two Afghan refugees successfully departed to Lithuania on a complementary pathway through education. Also in the same year, UNHCR collaborated with Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB) and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) on a pilot project Labour Mobility Scheme. The pilot project aims to match refugee candidates in Indonesia with potential employers in destination countries.

 Pic. . Mishka Project’s fashion design and modelling engage female refugees to upgrade their skills

Private sponsorship, where individuals or organizations involvement to resettle outside the UNHCR- managed process also become optional procedures in Indonesia. According to Danish-based Mixed Migration Center, there are 57 refugees left Indonesia in 2019 through private sponsorship.While the issues of refugees and migrants are the topics of high-level dialogues including at the recent Bali Process, Dilla’s only hope right now is to have better life for her and her daughter.

(Sources of photo: Makaila Haifa)

Stania Puspawardhani

Stania Puspawardhani is Jakarta-based writer and public policy analyst. She has worked as journalist for Aljazeera, NHK and Southeast Asia Globe.

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