New Skills for Asha


January 28, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Scott Dubin/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Asha and her family in Hassa Hissa, a displacement camp in Darfur. Photo: Scott Dubin/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Scott Dubin/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Asha's work in a Darfur camp — which includes small stoves and woven baskets, all made from local and sustainable materials — has become well-known, and people are even coming to her residence to buy her goods. Sewing and knitting classes are next on her list. Photo: Scott Dubin/Mercy Corps

By looking at 25-year-old Asha, you could never tell that she has been through so much in her young life. But the mere fact that she is living here in Darfur's burgeoning Hassa Hissa displacement camp is evidence enough that she has suffered — and this tragic proof is only compounded by the losses of three of her children. She takes her strength and purpose from the two children that she still has, seven-year-old Mohamed and three-year-old Waheda, and one of her sister's children that she cares for.

Asha came to this camp four years ago, as many women here did, fleeing the horrific violence that continues to sweep Darfur. That brutality — and the displacement, hunger and illness that followed — robbed her of most of her family, including her husband and those three children. It also took from her a hard working, yet gratifying life in her home village of Baringa.

Days at Hassa Hissa — home to thousands of displaced people who live in mud-and-thatch huts set against a dry brown landscape — bears little resemblance to Asha's life before displacement and loss. But, remarkably, she sees each day as an opportunity rather than a burden. And, through training classes offered here in the camp by Mercy Corps, she's always finding new ways to help her family.

Asha first learned of Mercy Corps two years ago, when staff came to her home and told her about some of the training opportunities being offered for women. Since then, she has successfully completed four courses: fuel-efficient stove making, food processing, basket weaving and, most recently, handicrafts.

Asha told us that, when she lived in her village of Barina, she worked on the family's small farming plot. Beyond agriculture, her skills were limited, so once at the camp she had no work to do since there is no available land for agriculture. During her first few months here, the only means to provide income for her family was to collect firewood from outside the camp. While this seems like a reasonable way to earn income, women are very vulnerable when leaving the camp for unpopulated areas. Despite the high risk, Asha collected and sold firewood so that she could support her children.

But now — thanks in large part to the trainings — life is much different, safer for Asha. She no longer has to collect firewood for income; in fact, she doesn't need to collect firewood at all, because she can buy it in the local market. The Mercy Corps trainings she's attended have given her the ability to produce goods to sell in the camp and in the nearby town.

Her work — which includes small stoves and woven baskets, all made from local and sustainable materials — has become well known, and people are even coming to her residence to buy her goods. She is planning on attending a class on sewing and knitting next.

"There is a difference in my life, from the past to now," Asha told us. "[Before] there was a shortage of food and clothes for my children, now that has changed, and now I'm happy."

Like mothers all over the world, Asha wants to provide for her children and see them happy. She has a desire for a purposeful life. The skills Asha has learned through Mercy Corps have given her support for achieving these goals.

Sitting in Asha's home — lovingly crafted from branches, bamboo stalks and plastic sheeting — you can't help but appreciate how she's created a home in which her children and herself can be comfortable. In spite of what's come before, today there's the sound of children playing. Today, for Asha, is a good day.