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April 30. 2013 7:54PM

Stateless refugees find haven in Nashua


The Rohingya Women's Group turns ribbons of yarn from recycled saris into jewelry. The women, who are refugees as a result of violence against their ethnic group in Myanmar, hope to open up their own shop someday soon.From left, Salimah Bintikalamiah, Zarina Arif, Najihah Arif, Katie Berube from Lutheran Social Services, who started the group, Shamshidah Sultan and Najirah Arif. (SHAWNE WICKHAM/SUNDAY NEWS)

NASHUA -- They are stateless: persecuted in their own country, shunned in others. Most Americans have never heard of them.

But a small circle of refugee women has been quietly weaving a new life here for their families and, perhaps, their people.

The members of A Woven Thread meet in a converted mill building on Franklin Street, braiding ribbons of silk into fabric necklaces they can sell to support themselves.

They've sold some necklaces already - and they've had the thrill of seeing women wearing their creations on the streets of Nashua. "We can see by that the future," said Najirah Arif, a member of the group.

The women are Rohingya refugees, a Muslim minority not recognized as citizens in their native Myanmar, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.

Just last week, the group Human Rights Watch issued a report that found recent attacks against the Rohingya community in Myanmar, including massacres and rapes, "amount to crimes against humanity carried out as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing."

This is what these new residents of Nashua have fled.

Najirah Arif and her twin sister Najihah came here with their parents and siblings a year ago from Malaysia. The twins, who are 23, were born there after their parents fled Myanmar, formerly Burma, decades earlier.

"We are not accepted in any country," explained Najirah.

That includes Malaysia, her sister added: "Even though we are born there, we are not accepted as citizens."

That meant they couldn't legally attend school.

But the twins learned their nearly flawless English by watching television and working with a tutor, a schoolteacher who used to sneak them into her school so they could study with her students.

Their mother, Zarina Arif, who is also part of A Woven Thread, wanted more for her children. She doesn't speak English, but with her daughters translating, she explained why she wanted to bring the family to America.

"I wanted you to be educated," she said. "To be somebody."

The family applied to the United Nations for refugee status; it took seven years for approval.

For many Rohingya, the situation is desperate and some turn to crime, Najirah said. Their father, who died recently, was too ill to work. "But we're lucky because my mom could go to people's houses to wash their clothes."

"There's a belief in our culture: When you feed your children with bad money, your children will turn out the same," she said.

The women chat happily in Malay as they work, fingers flying through the multi-colored silk. They jokingly refer to Katie Berube as "our chairman."

Berube works for Lutheran Social Services, which resettles new refugees through its Services for New Americans program. She just graduated from Springfield College, majoring in social work.

Berube and a colleague from LSS, Beth Seremet, wanted to help the Rohingya women start their own cooperative as part of the resettlement process.

They found a wholesaler in Maine who buys yarn from women's cooperatives in India and Nepal, and they worked with the Rohingya women to design the necklaces.

Just last week they registered their new business with the state as A Woven Thread LLC.

After the discrimination and persecution the Rohingya have experienced in so many places, Najirah said, she was surprised at how friendly people are here. "It's very different from Malaysia," she said.

They had learned to hide their ethnicity, Najihah said. "They look down on you."

"We've never been accepted, even in our own country. We really hope they accept us here," said her sister. "So far, they really do."

But after the news that the accused Boston Marathon bombers were Muslim, the women said they hid inside, afraid it would again mean retribution and violence against them. "I was quite scared," Najihah said.

When she talked to Katie Berube, she was surprised that Berube had no anger towards her and the rest of the Rohingya families, she said. It was more evidence that things are different here in America than other places they've lived.

Berube looked stricken when she heard the story. "That makes me so sad," she said softly.

The women of A Woven Thread have big dreams. They hope to open a shop soon to sell their wares, including their latest product: purses made from recycled newspapers.

Najirah Arif wants to go to college and become a social worker; Najihah wants to be a nurse. "We've been helped, so I want other people to be helped too," Najirah said.

That's also what they're doing with the fabric they get from women in Nepal and India, they said. "They're making yarn out of saris," Najirah said. "We're making necklaces out of yarn. It's kind of like a circle."

They plan to give a certain percentage of their profits to charity. "We're going to keep the circle going," said Najihah.

So what do the men in their families think of their enterprise? Najirah said when her brother-in-law first saw the necklaces, he was dubious. But when the money started coming in, he changed his tune: "Make more."

The women of A Woven Thread and their work will be featured at a reception at A&E Roastery and Cafe on Route 101A in Amherst this Friday at 6 p.m.

"It's the first time you can share your stories and tell the community what you're about," Berube tells the group.

Najirah smiles; that reminds her of a saying in Malaysia:

"If you don't open the box, you don't know what's inside."


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