With Paper Miracles, female survivors of the 2005 earthquake are rolling away their troubles one bead at a time
The clock struck 8:50am and Nosheen Aslam, sitting in her Muzaffarabad classroom, heard what she thought were airplanes hovering above her college. In the moments that followed, cracks began to appear on the walls and the ceiling and soon the brick structure came down, burying Aslam and her classmates under the rubble. Unaware of the scale of the devastation, she assumed it to be a minor roof collapse incident and expected quick help. But as she lay under the debris for the next four hours, battling piercing pain in her waist, reality began to dawn upon her.
“I was conscious the whole time and could hear my friends struggling under the crumbled bricks but after a while I noticed everyone was reciting the kalma; I realised this was the end and recited the kalma myself,” Aslam says, recalling the terrifying details of the 2005 earthquake which wiped out entire towns and villages in the scenic Azad Kashmir valley and adjoining areas. This year marks a decade since the quake occurred on October 8th. With the epicentre close to Muzaffarabad, the 7.6 magnitude quake in the Himalaya region left over 87,000 people dead, 138,000 injured and 3.5 million homeless.
As the rescue work began, Aslam was brought out of the wreckage without her bag and books but with a disability; she suffered a spinal injury and became dependent on others as she moved between hospitals for recovery. “I knew life would not be the same because I could not do anything myself,” she says, sharing how she felt after the tragedy in contrast to her lifestyle a decade later. An earthquake which crippled her backbone and dreams 10 years ago also gave her the courage to continue and be thankful for what she has, rather than lament what she lost. Aslam may not be the police inspector she wanted to be, but she is a financially independent woman supporting herself and her family.
A customer care officer at a mall by day and a bead-maker by night, Aslam lives at Ehsaas Foundation — a shelter in Golra village, Islamabad — with over a dozen other female survivors who are part of a social enterprise, Paper Miracles, which designs jewellery using paper beads. “Paper Miracles began as an initiative to create opportunities for survivors of the devastating 2005 earthquake and was designed and launched after listening to their inspiring stories of extreme hardships and how they overcame them with strength and determination,” Elli Takagaki, the brain behind Paper Miracles, tells The Express Tribune.
Takagaki says the art of making paper beads is very simple: it only requires waste paper and a toothpick. “It is an activity anyone can easily do, wherever and whenever they wish, without relying on anyone,” she explains, sharing how stories of these women and their physical and emotional trauma inspired her to initiate an income-generating activity to facilitate economic independence.
“The element of ‘making something without relying on others’ was the determining factor to move forward with Paper Miracles. We thought this could be an ideal solution for the beneficiaries who had expressed their strong desire to be economically independent and to bring about a change in their lives ‘using their own hands’,” she adds.
Though a known practice in other parts of the world, Takagaki says paper beads were not introduced in Pakistan before. “I first witnessed the art of making paper beads in Uganda as I drove by a group of women singing in harmony, swaying to the tune, chatting and laughing so hard that tears were coming out. I immediately stopped to take a closer look and noticed the fingertips of these women were moving quickly, efficiently rolling long strips of paper one after another into beautiful beads,” she recalls, adding that though she observed this activity for just a few minutes, it left a strong impression on her. “It depicted an ideal image of bliss and harmony while being a productive member of the workforce.”
Since its inception in 2012, Paper Miracles has changed many lives with its ‘beads of hope’. “Earning an income by rolling strips of waste paper may seem like a trivial activity, however, we have seen over and over again, the incredible impact this seemingly trivial activity can actually have. The facial expressions of these women have changed as a result of increased self-confidence and dignity. Each paper bead the beneficiary makes with her own hands is tangible evidence of moving one step forward to achieving her goals,” says Takagaki.
She believes the project has helped these women regain dignity and confidence by making them independent. “Once self-esteem is regained, the beneficiaries feel confident to take on new challenges, opening doors to new chapters in their lives,” states Takagaki, highlighting how little support can go a long way in bringing change — an aspect evident in the lives of these women.
Safia was a 19-year-old undergraduate student when the 2005 earthquake flattened her college building in Bagh, leaving her paraplegic. But a look at her résumé today could easily put any average person to shame. With the support of her family, friends and well-wishers over the last 10 years, not only did Safia complete her Bachelor of Arts degree, she pursued Bachelor of Education and Master of Economics studies. Moreover, she works as a community rehabilitation worker to counsel other survivors of the earthquake and teaches Islamic Studies to secondary class students at a school run by the Ehsaas Foundation. Safia complements her school salary with the extra income from Paper Miracles and utilises her free time after classes sitting with her fellow residents and making paper beads.
“I lost all hope after the incident and even gave away my books because I knew I wouldn’t be able to continue studying, but I gradually returned to life; I learnt life doesn’t end with tragedies and we have to live on,” shares Safia.
The beads that Aslam, Safia and many others create at the shelter are the building blocks of a one-of-a-kind jewellery collection. “At our first exhibition, the items were selling so quickly, we ended up frantically adding a “reserved” tag and asking customers to allow us to keep items until the end of the exhibition,” Takagaki recalls, adding the initial positive response gave her team the confidence to move forward and further accelerate the implementation.
The initiative is supported by many expats and diplomats who even walked the ramp for Paper Miracles at a recent event. “We have been fortunate to be blessed with so many people supporting us since the beginning. HE Rodolfo Martin Saravia, the dean of the Diplomatic Corps and Ambassador of Argentina, has generously accepted the role of being our goodwill ambassador after the departure of Susan Heyward, the Australian High Commissioner’s wife, our first goodwill ambassador,” Takagaki says, mention a few names, but adding that the complete list of supporters is quite extensive.
The exhibitions held with the support of the diplomatic community in Islamabad not only help showcase the jewellery but also give the bead-makers a chance to witness up-close the overwhelming response to their hard work. Shaheen Abdur Razzak, who makes beads for Paper Miracles after her shift at a call centre where she books movie tickets, enjoys such moments of glory. “It feels good because we get to meet new people, we are called up on the stage, introduced and praised for our work,” she shares. Razzak was only 16 years old when her house in Azad Kashmir gave in to the severe tremors of the 2005 earthquake and left both her lower limbs paralysed. “I had never met a person with a disability and knew nothing about the challenges of losing such a vital bodily function. I spent the next six years in hospitals but decided to not let my life come to a halt,” she says.
Created with the specific aim to provide a livelihood to earthquake survivors like Razzak, Paper Miracles has expanded its operations and impact over the years. “It is exciting to see the growth as the number of beneficiaries has increased since its inception to include marginalised women in Sindh, southern Punjab, in Bari Imam and soon in Peshawar,” Takagaki shares, adding that their product range has also expanded from necklaces and earrings to home textile products. “Stitching and embroidery are also done by our beneficiaries, allowing us to create more income-generating activities for more marginalised women as part of the Paper Miracles value chain,” she adds.
Ten years ago, the fate of many survivors might have appeared bleak but with hope and perseverance, the Paper Miracle beneficiaries have risen from the debris of their schools and houses to reach new heights.
From trash to treasure
Step 1 Waste paper from calendars, magazines and newspapers are sorted.
Step 2 Sheets are cut into long paper strips with the help of a machine.
Step 3 A strip is rolled around a toothpick and glued at the end to form a bead.
Step 4 The beads are varnished for shine and sturdiness.
Step 5 The finished beads are sorted according to their colour and size.
Step 6 The paper beads are paired with semi-precious stones and metal beads to make jewellery and other accessories.
Ferya Ilyas is a senior subeditor
at The Express Tribune. She tweets @ferya_ilyas
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 4th, 2015.