After fleeing their homes amid armed conflict, many displaced women in northern Burma lack opportunities to earn a living. At camps for internally displaced people (IDPs), some have been waiting for three years to go home, where they can find jobs or farm the land. To make the wait a little easier, one philanthropist is teaching them to weave and sell handicrafts at markets. Phyu Ei Thein, founder of the Sunflower Group, offers classes at IDP camps in Kachin State while also encouraging women across the country to support themselves by learning to weave at loom institutes. She spoke with The Irrawaddy about her work.
Question: Can you tell us the story of how the Sunflower Group was founded?
Answer: We formed in January 2012 and we work with 14 loom institutes. I had been exporting natural dyes to Japan since 2006, so I already had a company, and I began to discuss a plan with students at loom institutes to mix their designs with mine. I gave them weaving assignments and then bought their products at reasonable prices. This is how I started my Sunflower Group.
Q: And I heard that in June you offered handicraft training for ethnic Kachin women at a camp in northern Burma.
A: I taught them how to make string and showed them how to craft it into bracelets, necklaces and earrings, as well as charms for mobile phones. They used string and gems, which are available in our country, and I put their products on sale in Rangoon… If they can earn a regular income, I will go [teach] in other townships.
Q: Why did you focus on Kachin State?
A: The women in the refugee [IDP] camps have been there for over three years. They don’t have jobs and they cannot farm. The women who have children cannot go outside to work. If we can give them job opportunities in the camps, they can earn money. They can keep working like this even when they go back to their villages. They have been living without any income for so long. Plus, they can keep themselves busy with work so they don’t have to focus so much on their other problems. They can stand on their own.
Q: What are your main challenges?
A: We have to ensure quality products, which takes time, practice and imagination. We don’t have many difficulties because the camp we visit now is the same camp we used to visit very often. We have talked about making bamboo trays for men in the refugee camps. We combine traditional ways with my ideas.
Q: Do you encourage girls in the camp to attend loom institutes?
A: I’ve been there 10 times and I’m now friendly with them, but I still need to convince the young girls to go to the loom institute. There are girls who have already passed the matriculation exam and there are girls who do not go to school. Also there are some girls who go over the border to China to work. We need to help them get an income. If they go to loom institutes, they can work for the rest of their lives.
Q: Do you plan to visit other IDP camps in far-off regions?
A: I’d like to, but it’s quite difficult because of poor transportation. We also need to find the resources that we can use in those regions first.
Q: What else do you want to say, Ma Phyu Ei Thein?
A: The officials are talking about peace, but the people at refugee camps know nothing about it. They seem hopeless. They don’t know when they can go back home. If we wait to create job opportunities for them only after achieving peace, that will not be for a long time. It’s better if we help them now. We should have been doing this a long time ago, but we can start now. We need to raise their morale. I cannot afford a massive investment. I am just trying to make their lives better.