Photo courtesy of Ten Thousand Villages

A group of artisans from the Hajiganj Handicrafts crochet unit sit outside their workshop stitching blankets from recycles saris. All the women employed here are Bihari refugees – a displaced ethnic group of Indians primarily living as refugees in Bangladesh. 

A few hours before she leaves for work each morning, Shamima Begum wakes up early to take a shower and make her family breakfast. Once her husband and children have been fed and she’s ready for the day, she makes her way through the city to start her workday at Hajiganj Handicrafts.

Begum is one of 37 full-time Bihari artisans at Hajiganj Handicrafts. For 12 years, she’s taken discarded or donated saris and cotton and transformed them into beautiful, one-of-a-kind throw blankets that are sold to fair trade stores like Ten Thousand Villages.

Hajiganj was founded by MCC in a village of the same name in northern Bangladesh in 1998. The crochet unit was added a few years later in 2005 specifically to offer opportunities for women from Bihari families. Biharis are an ethnic group from the Indian state of Bihar, many were displaced during the partition of India and fled to Bangladesh and Pakistan as refugees.

Shamima Begum is an artisan working for the Hajiganj Handicrafts crochet unit in Saidpur, Bangladesh. She made this blanket by sewing together recycled saris and cotton using a technique known as Kantha stitching. Photo courtesy of Prokritee

“Before joining Hajiganj crochet unit, my family and I were struggling a lot to make ends meet,” Begum says. “My husband was the only earning member of my family – my sons were little back then, so they couldn’t work. I used to work as a housemaid for one of my neighbours but even with my additional income, my husband and I were struggling to maintain a family of eight.”

Since joining Hajiganj in 2006, however, Begum says she’s now earning a good salary each month and feels more independent and respected by her neighbours.

In addition to fair wages and a safe working environment, Hajiganj Handicrafts also provides benefits for their workers. They offer social training programs such as literacy courses, different weaving techniques and seminars on hygiene. Many Bihari women learn to crochet from their mothers or grandmothers, but the technique used to sew these blankets, known as Kantha stitching, is less commonly taught.

“I knew how to crochet before joining here,” Begum says. “But all the other skills – sewing blankets or working with recycled saris – that I know now were taught to me here.”

An artisan from Hajiganj Handicrafts crochet unit performs quality checks on a throw blanket sewed from recycled saris. Photo courtesy of Ten Thousand Villages

Begum and her family live in a refugee camp set up by the Bangladesh government where thousands of Bihari live in slum-like conditions. When asked about her hopes for the future, she says she wants to be able to continue her work with Hajiganj Handicrafts until she can retire and buy a piece of land for her family to call their home.

“We Bihari people once had a proud history. After the partition, we lost our home and became refugees. Hajiganj brought us together and made us feel at home again. Every time I see my products going out through the front door of crochet unit, I feel proud to be a Bihari.”

You can support artisans like Begum all over the world by shopping at Ten Thousand Villages for your Christmas and holiday gifts.

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