Felt-making craft helps young Roma refugee women in Balkans state

News Stories, 24 May 2007

© UNHCR/A.Galic
Three young Roma refugees from Kosovo learn how to make felt from wool.

SKOPJE, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, May 24 (UNHCR) Most people forced to flee their homes because of violence or persecution end up losing almost everything, including employment and the opportunity to earn a living.

But here in Skopje, UNHCR has been helping a small group of Roma women learn a simple, ancient craft that will boost their self-esteem and help them and their families become self-sufficient.

Earlier this month, the UNHCR office in Skopje became a virtual workshop as five young Roma women and their teacher, Vesna Avramovska, picked out colourful balls of wool and turned them into strips of felt using traditional techniques. From this finished product, they created magical pillow cases, dolls, bags and other hand-crafted items under Avramovska's expert guidance.

"We will sell them and increase our families' income," said 20-year-old Esma Gasnjani, with a huge grin across her face. She and her Roma classmates are among more than 1,900 refugees and asylum seekers who have been living in FYR Macedonia since fleeing Kosovo. Most are from Kosovo's Roma, Ashkalija, Egyptian and Gorani minorities, who fled their homes in 1999. There are also a few Bosnians and ethnic Albanians.

The five women were taking part in a three-day felt-making workshop organized by the UN refugee agency and the Macedonian Artisan Trade Association (MATA), of which Avramovska is deputy director. The course was part of a long-term UNHCR programme to give female refugees in FYR Macedonia the skills to support themselves and reduce their dependence on aid hand-outs.

"Learning these old and traditional crafts in this region will certainly help refugees, both here in exile and hopefully upon returning to their homes," said Carlos Maldonado, UNHCR's representative in Skopje.

The idea for the course came last December when Roma refugee women taking part in the annual MATA Christmas bazaar saw some traditional felt garments produced by local artisans. They discovered that not many people knew how to make felt and felt artefacts, which are in high demand and fetch good prices. They saw this as an opportunity and asked UNHCR to help set up a workshop.

"We approached MATA and they were happy to respond to our request to teach felt-making techniques to the Roma women," recalled Maldonado.

Felt is one of the oldest forms of fabric known to mankind. It is a non-woven cloth that is produced by matting, condensing and pressing fibres normally wool. It can be any colour, hard or soft and formed into any shape or size.

The Roma women learnt "dry felting" and "wet felting" techniques during the course, towards which they paid US$180 of their own money to cover costs of materials. "This is the money we made at the Christmas bazaar," said Gasnjani, who clearly thought it was a good investment. She welcomed the chance to earn a living after eight years in FYR Macedonia.

Gasnjani and her colleagues will sell their products on the local market and at bazaars run by various non-governmental organizations in Skopje. They will also plough back some of the profits into training courses for more Roma women. UNHCR supports their plans and has pledged to help.

By Aneta Galic in Skopje, former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia




How UNHCR Helps Women

By ensuring participation in decision-making and strengthening their self-reliance.

UNHCR's Dialogues with Refugee Women

Progress report on implementation of recommendations.


Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to abuse in mass displacement situations.

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Results of a study carried out in 2008 by UNHCR, with support from the European Commission and UNICEF, May 2009.


We help refugees, refugee returnees and internally displaced people tap their potential and build a platform for a better future.

Women in Exile

In any displaced population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and sometimes their family structure, females are particularly vulnerable. They face the rigours of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse, even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families. In the last few years, UNHCR has developed a series of special programmes to ensure women have equal access to protection, basic goods and services as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

On International Women's Day UNHCR highlights, through images from around the world, the difficulties faced by displaced women, along with their strength and resilience.

Women in Exile

Refugee Women

Women and girls make up about 50 percent of the world's refugee population, and they are clearly the most vulnerable. At the same time, it is the women who carry out the crucial tasks in refugee camps – caring for their children, participating in self-development projects, and keeping their uprooted families together.

To honour them and to draw attention to their plight, the High Commissioner for Refugees decided to dedicate World Refugee Day on June 20, 2002, to women refugees.

The photographs in this gallery show some of the many roles uprooted women play around the world. They vividly portray a wide range of emotions, from the determination of Macedonian mothers taking their children home from Kosovo and the hope of Sierra Leonean girls in a Guinean camp, to the tears of joy from two reunited sisters. Most importantly, they bring to life the tremendous human dignity and courage of women refugees even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Refugee Women

Statelessness and Women

Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

Statelessness and Women

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