By DASHVEENJIT KAUR / Pic By fugeelah.com & MUHD AMIN NAHARUL
SOME 11 years ago, a documentary on a Somali refugee family was filmed in the heart of Kuala Lumpur as part of a programme initiated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Hosting the documentary was the then Miss Malaysia World 2007 Deborah Henry, who had no idea she was about to champion the lives of refugee children for years after.
“When I first met them, I didn’t just see a family. What I saw were the effects of having no education, no hope and no support. I left their home that day and told myself, I cannot just walk away from them,” she told The Malaysian Reserve recently in an hour-long interview.
What happened after Henry left the home of the Somali family that day in 2008 had somehow impacted the lives of 1,000 other refugees over the next 10 years.
“I remember walking away and I knew that I needed to do something more. I decided to come and physically teach the kids. In 2009, my university friend, Shikeen, and I started giving tuition.
“Later, the refugee community around the area started to know about us and that was how Fugee School started a decade ago,” she added.
Today, Fugee School provides primary, secondary and tertiary education opportunities for refugee children and asylum seekers, mainly from Somalia and the Middle East.
Figures at a Glance in Malaysia Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor does it have any local framework to address the issue. The non-existence of legislation is, however, not for a lack of need in that area.
A check with the UNHCR showed that as of end-October 2019, some 46,340 out of 177,800 refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia are children below the age of 18.
There are some 24,590 refugees and asylum seekers from countries including Pakistanis (6,600), Yemenis (3,600), Somalis (3,240), Syrians (3,210), Afghans (2,460), Sri Lankans (1,880), Iraqis (1,340), Palestinians (780) and the rest from other countries.
A larger proportion or some 153,200 of refugees are from Myanmar — comprising some 98,130 Rohingyas, 23,500 Chins, 9,450 Myanmar Muslims, 3,720 Rakhines and Arakanese, and other ethnicities from Myanmar.
Notably, some 68% of refugees and asylum seekers are men, while 32% are women.
The 1951 Refugee Convention has long been the key point of reference for refugee issues across the globe.
It sets out the fundamental rights, freedoms and obligations of a refugee, who is defined as any person owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.
To most of us, this may be nothing more than a wordy description.
But to the millions of refugees worldwide, it succinctly illustrates what compels them to flee from their homes and the uncertainty that looms in the years that follow.
Choice is almost elusive in this scenario as they arrive on the shores of host countries and assume the label of refugee.
Living in Limbo
To Henry, refugees should not be denied the chance to obtain education, proper healthcare and the rights to work.
Since refugees and asylum seekers have no access to sustainable livelihoods or formal education, UNHCR runs a limited number of humanitarian support programmes for them in cooperation with non-governmental organisation partners, and this is where Fugee School comes into play.
“In Fugee’s early days, I felt some pushback from the government. Back then, they did not know how to deal with refugees, pretending the problem doesn’t exist and when matters regarding refugees were brought up, they got pushed under the rug.
“Malaysia needs to recognise that this (refugee) problem is not going to go away anytime soon, and the soonest that we sit down and acknowledge the problem, the better,” Henry said.
To put things into perspective, there is currently no legislative or administrative framework in dealing with refugees in Malaysia.
This challenging, protective environment makes it difficult for UNHCR to fulfil its mandate in the country, which now houses some three million migrants — 1.5 million of whom are considered undocumented migrants. By law, refugees are not differentiated from undocumented migrants. They are, therefore, vulnerable for arrest on immigration offences and may be subject to detention, prosecution, whipping and deportation.
In the absence of a national adminisrative framework, UNHCR conducts all activities related to the reception, registration, documentation and status determination of asylum seekers and refugees.
To begin with, Henry reckoned that the country needs an improved system that is not only accessible to the UN and the Immigration Department, but also to all authorities.
“(For example) I am a refugee, I will have a card and if there is a system that can read it automatically. It would keep me protected as an individual.
“Fugee School had one of its students around the age of 20, who was detained by an immigration officer because he did not have his refugee card on him…and he was just heading to a shop nearby,” she said.
The student ended up being kept in the detention camp for 10 days.
“Is that the reality? At one end, they don’t carry their cards almost everywhere because they are often victims of robbery, and on the other hand, they get caught and be treated horribly by a system so flawed,” she said.
Henry said as refugees are often mistaken for illegal migrants, they remain under constant threat of detention or deportation.
With advanced technology and all the resources available, she said a uniformed system should have been made available by now.
On the brighter side, Henry said the change of government had shed some light into the issue.
“I think since the new government came in, it’s (fair) to say that there has been progress. There are definitely conversations and dialogues that I have attended myself with various ministries involved.
“Recently, the Ministry of Education has been going around finding out more about these community- based schools like Fugee, but that is it. No impact on our life otherwise,” she said.
They Deserve to Survive
Refugees are here and they want to work. Many are actually working, so this could transform their work experience into a legal one rather than illegal, and this could benefit the local economy.
“Allowing refugees to work would mean more stability and security to them as the money they earn goes into caring for their families, which would mean better healthcare and education, as well as less dependency on the state,” Henry said.
Given the chance, well-managed refugee populations can actually contribute positively to the economy and even pay taxes.
A report released in April this year by the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a Malaysian think tank, highlighted the potential economic benefits to Malaysia in granting refugees legal employment opportunities.
The report estimated that refugees can add over RM3 billion to the GDP and RM50 million in tax revenue in the next five years.
Critically, the report also addressed concerns by Malaysians who are worried that refugees will crowd out locals from the labour market, suggesting that such negative impacts are “likely to be minor and limited to other foreign workers and older or less educated Malaysians”.
However, many refugees currently work unofficially, often in dangerous jobs where their productivity is restricted, and they are at risk of exploitation.
“My wish to the government is to allow them to work. It will give the people dignity and self-respect, while opening doors and it turn, contributing to the economy,” Henry emphasised.
Granting Refugees the Basic Human Right — Education
Making sure undocumented migrants are equally able to access education is one of the several challenges in realising the most fundamental of all human rights.
In Malaysia, the main issues for refugees are the inability for adults to work legally and the inability for their children to formally attend schools.
“These parents struggle as they can’t adequately provide for their families and it causes them to fall into depression, making them apathetic.
“From missing out on years of learning to a proper childhood, these children eventually become victims of mental trauma and hopelessness,” Henry said.
Being in Fugee School creates a sense of normalcy in the lives of the refugee children.
Henry said the school contributes to the children’s intellectual development and emotional wellbeing, which would in turn help them overcome the traumas of war and displacement.
“Following a holistic approach to education, Fugee School’s academic and non-academic programmes on art, music, sports and personal development are aimed at building the hard and soft skills of refugee children so they will be able to reach their full potential.
“The school programmes seek to benefit the children, teenagers or even young adults through a holistic education and ensure (their) transition readiness,” she said.
The school’s four pillars, which include education, emotional development, grit and aftercare, drive the decisions on how educators can provide a holistic education and ensure transition readiness by equipping all students with hard skills and soft skills to help them better navigate their lives and be all that they can be.
“We also have an aftercare where we focus on the after school needs of the student, from extra tuition classes to education sponsorship, crisis support and childcare services.
“It is all part of our school mission — no child gets left behind,” she emphasised.
According to Henry, the school has witnessed the transformation of students because they have access to knowledge and are empowered with life skills that build their selfworth and confidence.
“Up till today, it really amazes me to see how much the students have transformed since they entered the school. I believe they are able to confidently take their place in this world because of the access to knowledge, the learning of life skills that shape their selfworth and the exposure to tech and global citizenry courses,” she added.
Fugeelah — a Little Goes a Long Way
What started as a fundraising project to help keep education free for refugee children at the Fugee School has grown into a busy little lifestyle accessories brand.
Fugeelah, a social enterprise that sells jewellery handmade by the students, commits a majority of its monthly profit to the Fugee School.
“This helps keep the school open and sustains access to free education for 200 students. By doing this, we hope to aid Fugee School in becoming a self-sustaining organisation, while alleviating the pressures of constant fundraising.
“Right now, we employ four refugee girls from the Fugee School. Our girls get an allowance of RM10 an hour to make jewellery and work at any Fugeelah bazaars. That little bit of freedom that often comes with financial gain can make a world of a difference,” Henry said.
She added that by involving the girls in all aspects of the business, they learn useful skills that they can take with them to whatever part of the world they are resettled into.