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Refugee Week 2023: How My Grandmother's Journey Inspired Me

by Stephanie Sieber

Refugee Week is an annual festival in the UK that aims to celebrate the resilience shown by refugees, as well as their many contributions to British culture. We caught up with Stephanie Sieber about how her grandmother's refugee journey inspired her to create her jewellery brand, Brave Edith. 

In 2012, there were 40 million forcibly displaced people in the world. Today, there are more than 103 million – including millions of Ukrainians, Sudanese, Afghans, Syrians, and Rohingyas fleeing from war and persecution. Despite this huge number, and as gut wrenching as the media footage is, it can seem like another world away.

Brave Edith - Refugee Week 2023

That’s also how my grandparents initially viewed the battles of World War 2 from the remote village of Mawlaik, in north-western Burma. However, in late February 1942 as the Japanese began their invasion into Burma, my 57-year-old great-grandmother, 31-year-old grandmother and four-year-old Uncle were forced to flee their home and join what was at the time, the largest migration in history. Born and raised in Burma, my grandmother Edith’s life changed in a blink of an eye.

My grandfather stayed in Burma to help with the war effort, and so my grandmother became the true matriarch – in charge of the safety of her small son and ageing mother-in-law. With a few hours’ notice, Edith bundled up a haphazard collection of belongings, from jewellery to a few pieces of silver, and said goodbye to her husband and home. The oppressive summer heat had already arrived, and Edith and her little family were facing a trek of 170 miles across some of the most inhospitable and remote terrain to the border of India.

Brave Edith - Refugee Week 2023

Of the 600,000 Indians, Britons and Anglo-Burmese who fled Burma, it is estimated 80,000 died trying to escape. Many were trapped by the monsoon or succumbed to disease – from malaria to typhus – while others suffered severe exhaustion and were unable to walk. My family survived thanks to a mixture of courage and good fortune, but also due to the help they received along the way. My grandfather’s employers, the Bombay Burmah Trading Company, had helped organise my family’s group and when my grandmother became ill at the Indian border town of Imphal, she was able to recover in a makeshift evacuation centre that had been built by local tea plantation owners.

Brave Edith - Refugee Week 2023

Once Edith’s strength returned, the family were boarded onto trucks and on April 15, 1942, they were officially registered as safe in Dimapur. At this point however, further complications arose. Although they had made it across the border, they had to find somewhere to live; with little money and the influx of so many refugees, it was not easy to find a place to stay. Fortunately, Edith was able to contact her sister’s family who lived in the south of India and who offered to help them settle in Bangalore. It was a 2000-mile train journey from Dimapur, and although unfamiliar, uncomfortable and cramped, the slow journey south was filled with hope and relief. One month later, Edith was reunited with my grandfather who had left Burma to join the Royal Indian Engineers. My mother was born nine months later.

Brave Edith - Refugee Week 2023

And so, thanks to the generosity and compassion of others, I am here to tell this story today. It was also my grandmother’s remarkable experience that inspired me to create my jewellery brand Brave Edith. Each collection I make is a tribute to her and by using Burmese and Indian motifs for protection and good fortune, it’s a way to celebrate the beauty of the human spirit. It also gives me an opportunity to do a little bit to help others; I am a longstanding Migration Support Program volunteer at Australian Red Cross and run periodic promotions where I donate a portion of my sales to help asylum seekers and refugees who are in urgent need of assistance.

Too often we forget that none of us are immune from disaster, but fortunately for all of us, the kindness of humanity can also intervene when we are at our most vulnerable. This Refugee Week, I encourage you to celebrate the asylum seekers and refugees in your community who bring so much culture and unique experiences with them.