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Upliftment of the Burmese Refugee community by students from IIT Delhi

By SIFE IIT Delhi  •  June 20, 2011

The Golden land of Burma has been always famous for its rich culture and heritage, but today its virtuousness is under attack. Burma has been entrenched in political and armed conflict between the repressive ruling military regime, political opponents, and ethnic groups – resulting in the displacement of over 3.5 million people. India being a neighboring country hosts a large and growing number of Burmese refugees. Here in New Delhi, a nearly 10,000 strong community continues to exist in the obscure margins of our lives without anyone taking much notice. Even with Burma attracting international attention and the President of the United States acknowledging the plight of the Burmese community settled in West Delhi, there are very few Delhites, let alone Indians who know of their existence.

This large number does not afford them any legal protection, leaving them vulnerable to harassment, discrimination, and deportation. India is not a signatory of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which is the cornerstone of UNHCR’s work around the world. Hence the present situation is that the government takes no responsibility as such of these refuges and the onus is on UNHCR to provide for their sustenance. As a result, the Indian community is almost apathetic to the cause of these refuges – be it matters of protection, health, education, administration, legal or general social factors. While protection and permanent solutions are long in coming for the Burmese community in Delhi, their wait is made more urgent by untenable living conditions, a lack of adequate and acceptable livelihoods, poor health, an inability for their children to receive an education, and the impossibility of integrating with the local community.

The need of the hour is to help these Burmese refugees feel like respectable human beings in a foreign land, make them feel at peace – free from the unnecessary hostility and discrimination, and provide them with some opportunity for decent sustenance. Here is where a student group from IIT Delhi, believes that they could help make a difference. The 23 member strong student group, SIFE IIT Delhi, aims to play a proactive role in helping the development and economic sustainability of a group of
people so far neglected. They have been working with the community since November 2010, with the support of charter organizations such as UNHCR. As they learned more about the community, they came to understand how each day is a challenge for these refuges. Their continuous struggle to survive in this home away from home, made these students dedicate themselves to this cause. Under the banner of Project Aarambh, these students are making a fresh attempt for the cause of overall development of the Burmese refugees.

Their project looks to economically empower these people through sustainable income generation. There are a number of centres within the community that manufacture handicrafts that boast of Burmese skill and culture. However such centres are far from realizing their true potential, due to lack of awareness about the current market scenario in India, and the hindrance they face in terms of language barrier and societal exclusion. These students from IIT Delhi have been working with such women based small handicraft entrepreneurial units in the refuge community, promoting their traditional arts – marketing their goods such as handbags, laptop bags, purses, woolens, coats, and shawls; organizing corporate stalls to facilitate their sales. Furthermore, they are facilitating professional support for  improved skills, operations and scalability and have collaborated with DASTKAR, a national organization, for the same.

They have also established a platform for the community, called Placement Cell, to create an avenue to help people in Burmese community who are in need of a job. The cell works as a 2 way forum, an interface between the people and the factories and shops which have job vacancies. The objective is to ensure just, sustainable, fair pay work for the refugees while ensuring regularity and consistency for the employers. Their initiatives in this end have included interventions with nearby workshops seeking fair employment opportunities, matching job requirements with skill and conducting training sessions and workshops for the refuges enabling them to blend into the new work culture.

Besides all this, their efforts have included initiatives for holistic development. These students realize that it is of paramount importance to help the refuges integrate and communicate with the Indian society at large and to sensitize the Indian society by making them aware of the plethora of problems faced by the Burmese community and the main reason as to why they seek asylum here. Their engagements have included college outreach programs such as in St. Stephen’s College and community
initiatives such as Health Camps.

These young students from IIT Delhi have a long term vision with respect to their engagement with the Burmese refugee community. They are aware of the political, social and cultural dilemmas in helping a foreign refuge community – and their efforts are only meant to make the lives of these refuges a little more humane and meaningful. They feel that these refuges carry in their hearts, the Burma they fled and the hope to return. It is their culture that these students want the world to get a taste of. It is their spirit that they salute. It is their story that they want the world to listen to.

Download the flyer about Project Aarambh here.

About SIFE IIT Delhi

SIFE (Student in Free Enterprise www.sife.org) – is an international non-profit organization that aims to mobilize university
students to make a difference in their communities and become socially responsible business leaders. SIFE IIT Delhi
(www.sifeiitd.org) is the student chapter of SIFE in the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. Established in July 2010, it comprises of a team of 23 dedicated students working under faculty supervision, and has now grown into one of the most dynamic student initiatives while working on its inaugural project.

Work at SIFE IIT Delhi involves research, field visits, associating with different organisations and developing a sustainable
business plan that can economically empower the community. This work demands a lot of sincerity, commitment, innovation
and team work. The current SIFE team has members with different interests and experiences over different fields of work, which enables them to think over and analyse a project idea from different angles.

SIFE IIT Delhi is one of the most comprehensive extra-curricular activities involving components from societal knowledge and
community sensitivity to building sustainable social enterprises to management skills. In the long run it aims to create a pool of student leaders who use their technological and business skills to make the world a better place.

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