Flood Refugees: Back to Normal….Almost

“There remained nothing for us in the (refugee) camp; we came to Attock with empty hands. That was really a terrible moment,” said Elio Haji and his wife as they recalled last year’s devastating floods in Pakistan. Displaced from their home of 19 years in Azakhel Refugee Camp of the Nowshera district (NWFP), this 60 year old father of two teenage sons and one daughter fled to the nearest place they knew they could find shelter: Attock district in Punjab province.? Despite being only one and half hours away by road Attock was far removed from the reality they were escaping.? Their goal was simply to reach a dry area protected from floods that was, above all, home to other Afghan refugees like themselves.

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After surviving on the charity ofstrangers and other Afghan refugees initially, the family quickly set themselves up as carpet weavers “because,” Beg Sultan (Elio Haji’s wife) said, “it is our family occupation and we don’t know other skills to earn.” The one aspect that added to the difficulty of re-starting their family occupation was that their primary income-generating asset – the family loom, which is passed down from one generation to the next – had been rendered unusable and immovable by the floods.?

Among the Afghan refugees that Barakat serves, the dominant ethnicities are Turkmen and Uzbek. Of these, the Turkmen in particular have had a culture of carpet weaving for centuries now. Even as the Turkmen have moved from one place to another and borders have been drawn and re-drawn among the different nation-states, they have carried the tradition of carpet weaving, not only for income-generation, but also for creating the primary pieces of furniture that they own. Their carpets hang on walls and lie on floors; they serve as a dining table, sleeping mats and formal sitting areas for guests. It is a tradition that is inextricably woven into their nomadic past and is continued to the present day, which remains uncertain and insecure.

Elio Haji and his family sought shelter in Attock with the intention of starting afresh in a new place, knowing full well that the Government of Pakistan was not encouraging returning refugees to Azakhel Camp since the flooding may deluge the area again in the years to come. However, having lost their loom, the family had to rent a loom from a small businessperson who was also providing them with the designs and raw materials for making the carpets. This situation limited Elio’s creativity and also caused quite a bit financial strain on the family.?

Then, early this year they heard from neighbors – flood-affectees like themselves – about Barakat’s Sustainable Livelihoods Program. This program was implemented to provide displaced families like Elio’s an opportunity to approach with a request for livelihood support in the form that would best serve them. Not surprisingly, Elio Haji and his family, like 32 other flood- displaced households in Attock, approached Barakat with a request for looms. He requested a 10-meter loom on which 3 people can weave at a time. With this commodity, their income increased and they were earning Rs. 10, 000 per month without worrying about the Rs. 500 to 800 that they used to pay for the rent of a loom.

Having received a grant from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee for implementation of the Sustainable Livelihoods Program, Barakat distributed looms to the flood-affectees in July 2011 – within a year of their move to Attock, Pakistan. Now, Elio Haji and his wife speak together about how this has made a difference to their lives:

“We had to spend money for the rent of the loom before, but now that money will be saved by us. It has helped us in starting earning for our daily expenses. Before this we were doing work on looms on payment; now we have our own loom, thanks to Allah and Barakat for helping us.”