The Fascinating Story of Benang Project: A New Hope for Refugees in Indonesia through Fashion
War, abandonment, displacement, natural disaster - just a few of the reasons refugees are forced to flee from their loved ones. I'm lucky enough to come from a comfortable middle-class suburb in Jakarta and was shocked to find out about the refugee crisis in my own country. A majority of them coming from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia where their lives are endangered, and their human rights are violated.
Let us imagine the situation of refugees. They have no legal right to work, no papers, no passport, and obtaining a formal education, as well as attending university, is extremely difficult. Owing to these reasons, they mostly struggle with poverty. However, they refuse to be a burden. Most of the refugees are young, educated, and intelligent people with great desire and abilities.
Consequently, to enhance their skills, they absolutely need an opportunity to have an informal education, which will help them to build new opportunities.
Let me present to you, Benang Project that educates, trains, and provides seven refugees with employment opportunities in the fashion industry, ensuring they will acquire new skills to enhance their chances of rebuilding life wherever they are.
Photo by: Franka Soeria
The Story of Benang Project
Franka Soeria, an Indonesian Fashion Entrepreneur and a Global Fashion Networker, is the founder of #Markamarie, a one-stop hub for Modest Fashion, co-founder of Modest Fashion Weeks, Council of Modest Fashion, and a woman behind the existence of the Benang Project. In 2018, Benang Project was founded as a fashion training program as a project with #Markamarie in which the refugees from countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq received the training under experts to have an equal chance to live a free and independent life as that of any other person.
I was granted exclusive access to interview Franka Soeria, the CEO of The Benang Project, who agreed to be interviewed for this article.
Firstly, she was initially interested in helping young Indonesian designers and people with disabilities by developing disabled projects at Jakarta Fashion Week. With the development of disabled projects, she would like to raise some community awareness that disabled people also have talents and abilities to participate in the fashion industry.
Afterwards, she had a meeting with The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Indonesia (UNHCR), which has the mandate to protect refugees. Hearing more about Indonesia's refugee issue, she wanted to participate by establishing a fashion training workshop to help displaced refugees in Indonesia, and so The Benang Project was born.
There are more than 13.000 refugees dwelling in Indonesia, and nothing they could do even for months and years. Most refugees arrive in Indonesia with the hope of being permanently resettled everywhere, but stranded in Indonesia without any income, no legal right to work, and unable to access public services or even acquire citizenship due to the immigration policies and a lack of resources. Not to mention why most refugees prefer to live in jail as they feel more secure without worrying about fulfilling their primary needs.
By looking at the plight of refugees in Indonesia, her empathy was even more disturbed, and she determined to establish the Benang Project. “Benang means thread,” as she stated in the interview. She started this project to give the refugees a life they deserved. A life that is free from suffering and stress. “We hope we can stitch those two components together – the society and refugees – so it will become unity” Only then the refugees in Indonesia will have a real chance at living.
"Benang means thread. We hope we can stitch those two components together - the society and refugees - so it will become unity"
What is exactly the training about?
The Benang Project aims to give refugees experience in the fashion industry. Training like design, pattern making, sewing, photography, styling, makeup brand creation, and fashion shows are given to the refugees.
Under the Benang Project's supervision, the recruited refugees have produced some phenomenal designs of outfits and clutch bags for a fashion show and successfully organized a photoshoot in the workshop of Franka's #Markamarie.
Photo by: Franka Soeria
"Benang Project is a media for the refugees to express themselves. They can fully express their personality, and creativity starting from the design, pattern making, and sewing. At least, they can enhance their skills even more, and escalate their chances of having better lives. This training is a kind of saviour for them, and they perceive it as a hope and light for their lives." Franka said
This training has enabled the recruited refugees to showcase their talents and design in four different countries, such as Jakarta, Paris, Turkey, and Dubai.
"When they have a chance to rebuild their lives, they will feel proud and gratified, since their work has been exhibited to some other countries."
The Main Goal of the Benang Project
The main goal of the Benang Project is to address the refugees with new hope to live a respectable life. Franka Soeria hopes she can expand her business and recruit more refugees to join the Benang Project to give more growth to those who have left their homes.
She wishes that her initiative i.e the Benang Project encourages other business leaders in the whole world to take the same path as her by providing more training opportunities to the refugees in every field of life. It’s her motive to be able to inspire and persuade every business to create an impact on a better environment for the refugees.
The Benang project has even managed to gain the international public's attention, such as Princess Basmah Bani Ahmad from Jordania. It makes Franka remarkably happy and grateful that the Benang Project could become an inspiration for the locals and the International Business and Brands to start helping the refugees, alleviating their lives suffering.
Franka's little inspirational project definitely gives refugees hope to survive and a way to continue their lives happily with a sense of pride and respect.
The hope for refugees through the Benang Project
Almost 14.000 refugees are living in Indonesia currently. Besides, the country is welcoming the refugees; yet still, there are not enough measures taken by the government to improve their life expectancy. They are unable to attend an Indonesian school or university and do not have the legal right to work in Indonesia.
“Being a refugee in Indonesia is stressful, as they face numerous challenges. I defray their accommodation and regular meals, and all I can say is that finding a small room is a complicated process for them. As a guarantor, I have to directly meet the landlord, clarify that they are not a bad person and will not carry out any crimes. People are afraid of something strange or unusual, and there is a lot of prejudice in society. I genuinely want to support them because I feel that everyone deserves help and support.”
Photo by: Franka Soeria
This Benang Project is the ray of sunlight in the darkness for the refugees in Indonesia. Many of the refugees said that this project has helped them become better persons and take them out of depression and negative thinking. As a result, they have no time to have negative thought since they are actively engaged with the job they love.
In short, the Benang Project has opened new dimensions for the refugees in Indonesia, and Franka is hoping to raise more awareness from entrepreneurs to expand this noble cause.
“I simply want to tell people that hey, refugees exist, and they also have talent and capabilities. As an entrepreneur or business leader, you can start to collaborate with them. It’s okay to start small. Can you imagine if each of the entrepreneurs or business leaders in Indonesia reaches just one refugee? I strongly believe that 14.000 refugees will have a better life. By starting to provide training, you are already participating to give hope for their lives. I hope more entrepreneurs would like to engage more in helping refugees.”
The lesson to learn from the Benang Project
Franka Soeria's initiative in 2018 is undoubtedly a ray of sunshine in the dreadful darkness for the refugees. She has proven that if a person is determined enough, nothing can stop them from fulfilling their dreams. Even with the limited resources, she has managed to give some of the refugees, if not all, a life they deserved, a life in which they can live with peace without becoming a burden on society.
"In the Benang Project, I determined to help others without any expectations. It's purely a livelihood program, empowerment, and how we can create inclusivity in the fashion industry," said Franka
The Benang Project gives us the lesson that besides the government, the social entrepreneurs and businesses are entitled to the duty of making the life of common people better. They should utilize their resources and help the refugees to take them out of their miserable life.
She believes that the refugees' enthusiasm and dedication will inspire other businesses and brands in Indonesia to directly come to the field, creating an impact on helping the refugees face their problems.
If her efforts become successful and other people plunge to help out, it will open new grounds for the refugees in every field of life. Refugees can take part in different activities of life legally and will become active and responsible citizens of the world.
Workshop in Villejuif, Parisian Suburb
If the Benang Project is located in Indonesia, in Villejeuif, a suburb of Paris, there is a workshop to train unemployed people, especially immigrants and refugees. It is hosted by the French NGO Renaissance, which encourages sustainable and environmentally friendly luxury clothing recreations. Just like in Benang Project, refugees are trained to do haute couture techniques by fashion designers, enabling them to express their creativity in a new way. This humanitarian project was designed to provide technical expertise in sustainable and environmentally friendly practices, restoring the refugees' self-confidence and opening doors to a better life.
On the other hand, Heba, a charity that provides sewing, pattern cutting, and garment production lessons to vulnerable migrant and refugee women located in London, also offers valuable training to learn new skills in the fashion industry.
From various examples above, we believe that some improvement has been made within the fashion industry. Even though the fashion industry has a long way to support refugees successfully, some people in the community have started to gain empathy for refugees and therefore are working to treat refugee workers equally. Let's hope that Benang Project's existence will inspire more social entrepreneurs, businesses, and the community to establish various projects to help ease the refugees' burden, especially in the fashion industry.
Claudia Stefanie Sutandi
MBA Global Fashion Media - IFA Paris