In Indonesia, Refugee Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves
A sisterhood community that empowers refugee women through skills and meaningful connections as they navigate through the uncertainties of their journey.
Imagine being forced to start over in a country where the language, people, culture, and money are foreign. Sadly this disruption of lives happens every day around the world, due to violence, conflict and natural disasters.
Nimo Adam is a Somalian refugee who has been residing in Jakarta for the past five years. She is an exemplary testament of resilience and strength. Though reserved when asked about her past, she lights up when asked about her aspirations for the future.
The beginnings of a Sisterhood
As a woman, Nimo recognises how much scarier and unnerving it can be to arrive in an unfamiliar land as a female outsider.
As of December 2020, Indonesia is home to 13,745 registered refugees from 50 countries, according to UNHCR estimates.
Nimo shares, “Refugee women are vulnerable. We feel and see this gap that refugee women need a special programme for them. They have faced much abuse and obstacles in life. A single woman, a single mother, or a mother with a large family. She feels a lot of responsibility without any support.”
So in 2018, Nimo and three other refugee women founded the Sisterhood Community Center (SCC) in Jakarta. Fondly referred to as “Sisterhood Community” or simply the “Sisterhood”, its mission is to be a community of refugee women who support and encourage each other through meaningful bonds during uncertain times. The center also offers educational and vocational online and offline classes such as language lessons, sewing, make-up and hairdressing, crocheting, jewellery making, floral arrangement and more. Women, local volunteers or fellow refugee sisters, front all classes and the management of the Sisterhood.
Among the women who found refuge in Sisterhood is Yalda, an Afghan refugee. In 2017, together with her husband and five children, she moved to Indonesia. Her first impression upon arrival was fear and confusion: “My country is different, and here is different. My family, we are so afraid about that time. We don’t have anything, and we don’t know about the languages of Bahasa Indonesia and English.”
For a season, she felt depressed and alone. Her daughter would notice and ask, “Mum, why did you become so silent?”
“I told her, I’m just tired, and I want to sleep… but I did not sleep. I went to the room and started to cry,” recalls Yalda.
A sister reaches out
In 2019, a ‘sister’ invited Yalda to visit the Sisterhood Community Center. She was positively taken aback; she was excited and proud to witness so many women from different backgrounds interacting, learning and confiding under one roof. She finally felt like she had a safe space and could share her problems with like-minded women.
It was through SCC that she picked up craft skills, but most importantly she learnt English.
Yalda is now able to communicate with the locals and feels more confident meeting new people.
Yalda reflects, “Refugee women need a place like SCC to improve their skills and to make them relax. When they come here, they can forget about their suffering, their mental problems or depression.”
A community that strengthens
To Nimo, the Sisterhood represents purpose and hope, because through the center, the women get to focus on their future and not their bleak reality.
Nimo elaborates, “Education is the key of life. And the majority of refugee women don't get a chance to learn something before. So education, skills, giving them encouragement and empowerment for well-being, this helps refugee women to take the responsibility of their life without waiting for someone else.”
The center’s operations are funded by donations, with its activities run by volunteers, amongst them 30 Indonesians who support and befriend the refugee women.
Vela Andapita is a volunteer English teacher with Sisterhood Community. The first time she visited the centre, she was moved to see a community of women empowering women.
During a conversation with Nimo, she shares, “What inspires me the most are people like Nimo who can gather the power to collaborate with other refugee women, to try to provide programmes and activities for other refugee women in order to survive and to empower each other. And that's the most wonderful thing that I see in this community.”
In response, Nimo says, “I get a lot of inspiration from the local community as well when they get out of their comfort zone to make my thinking and my hopes true… you are telling me that Nimo is on the right track. I have to say, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.”
Nimo’s desire for the Sisterhood to be the melting pot of meaningful relationships, where the women are able to find resilience in their lives despite their circumstances, has seen the centre grow from 18 members, to a community of over 400 ‘sisters’.
“Refugee people, wherever they are in the world, they need to feel like they have someone who cares for them,” says Nimo. “However you can support them, you can support through your voice, you can support with your skills, you can support through donations, but show them they are, they are not wasted.”