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As they seek a safer life, former refugees are forced to leave a lot behind. Taking only what they can carry, new Kiwis arrive in New Zealand with very few belongings, but with something extremely precious – their culture and traditions.
A new weaving group, supported by New Zealand Red Cross, is helping Karen women continue these traditions as they rebuild their lives in Palmerston North.
Working on portable wooden looms, the group practises traditional weaving techniques to create intricately patterned items like scarves and bags. Local museum Te Manawa has offered to sell the group’s wares in its gift shop.
It’s made a real difference for former refugees resettling in Palmerston North, group founder Eh Taw Sa says.
“Instead of sitting at home with nothing to do, they can do what they love – weaving. I don’t want them to feel hopeless or useless now they are in a new country.”
Not only will this provide a source of income for the women, it will encourage them to continue familiar customs in their new home.
Traditionally, the women would weave all their own clothes, creating brightly coloured and beautifully patterned outfits with their finely-honed art. The skill is passed down through generations and Karen women start learning from a very young age.
“Our grandmothers planted cotton. From that cotton, we would weave. When the children saw mum weaving, they would want to learn.
“Living in a new country doesn’t mean you can’t continue your traditions. These women, they would like to pass down the skills to their children as well. This group will help them do that.”
Meeting for a few hours a week in the library, the women gather to talk and weave together. The looms roll up so they can be easily carried from place to place without damaging the work within.
And while the art relies on knowledge from the past, it’s clear the group isn’t just about preserving traditions. It’s also about growing and sharing them.
The women have met with local Maori weavers, working on a korowai, to learn more about New Zealand’s practices. They sometimes share space with a multicultural weaving group, swapping tips and techniques.
Eh Taw also hopes the initiative will help educate the wider community about Karen culture.
“New Zealanders don’t know much of our people. We have our own culture, our own traditions, our own story to tell. We want to show people who we are.”