Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Art and Soul of BURMESE Refugees in MALAYSIA provided by Shariqa Habi

The Art and Soul of 
BURMESE Refugees in MALAYSIA provided by Shariqa Habib
A group of students and a lecturer of Taylor’s University College in Malaysia were dying to give Burmese kids the opportunity to develop art skills, have fun and most importantly, share their story with the rest of the world. The point was to wrap up the extraordinary perspectives of these precious Burmese gems into a project called “See the World Through Our Eyes.”, organized with the support of British Council’s Global Changemakers and Amnesty International Malaysia. In other words, these invisible members of Malaysian society were given a voice, or should I say, a camera?
How do you survive as a member of a minority group in Burma (Myanmar) where ethnic conflict has been an ongoing war since the 1940s? May be you’d consider running as fast as your Burmese feet can carry you, all the way to neighboring country Malaysia.  What happens afterward? Unfortunately illegal Burmese immigrants in Malaysia accept a miserable underpaid-abusive work life; deprivation of health-care, social security, food, clean water. Amnesty International Malaysia explains: “Malaysian law, especially the Immigration Act does not distinguish a person as a refugee or as a person in need of temporary protection. The Act also excludes validity of documents granted by the UNHCR that accord such people with International Protection.”
A little ray of Hope
Everyday Malaysians needed a serious wake-up call and that’s exactly what the Community Action Project (CAP) of the Global Changemakers aimed at. In comes Shariqa Habib, a Global Changemaker who recently finished her International Canadian Pre-University Program. As an assignment for her World Issues course, she and some other students had to visit a Burmese refugee school in Kuala Lumpur and teach the children for one day. This day turned out to be such an amazing experience that she wanted to work with them again. She spoke with her lecturer, Colin B. Shafer who let her watch the documentary “Born Into Brothels”, a documentary on prostitution in Calcutta, shot by the kids of prostitutes. Mister Shafer wanted to do something similar and his students were willing to run the project. VoilĂ , project “See the World Through Our Eyes” was born. Every weekend they would go to the school and give photojournalism training to a group of Burmese kids between 13 and 16 years old. Shariqa applied for a grant with the British Council’s Global Changemakers and the group received a grant to support the project. This grant, however, did not cover technical equipment so the group had to get their creative groove on to collect camera’s. Mister Shafer sold some of his photographic prints and people donated their old cameras. That’s wasn’t the only challenge they faced. They had to select the Burmese children who would participate in this project. Mister Shafer says it was very difficult to keep the number of the group under 20, because it was so hard to say no! He was also concerned with what they would think of the process. As refugees they have limited extra curricular activities, but in the end their response was very positive and they turned out to be fantastic photographers! Shariqa says language was another obvious barrier. Their ‘little photographers’ as she calls them didn’t speak proper English so they had to find a way to communicate with translators present. But they never lost hope!
The Butterfly Effect
The whole team of students and Burmese children worked together, like the imaginal cells of a caterpillar who turns into a beautiful butterfly. After a few months of hard work the metamorphosis was complete! A wonderful photo exhibition appeared at the Annexe Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. The exhibition received a great deal of support by the Executive Director of Amnesty International Malaysia, who made a personal appearance on the opening night.
The children were all dressed in traditional clothing and performed for the visitors. Some of their parents even managed to come. “I have never seen kids so proud. It was great to see their smiles as people observed their photographs with intrigue. Lots of people purchased the photographs and we were able to raise a lot of money for the ACR school, which exists month to month.” says Mister Shafer.
The Aftermath…
Mister Shafer and his students hope they can exhibit the photos in more places in Malaysia and internationally and spread their exquisite voice around the world!
Some of the kids received asylum from the U.S. government and moved to the U.S. with their family. Others are probably still in Kuala Lumpur. They were allowed to keep the cameras – score! Hopefully they are still using their new found talents to snap pictures and share their stories. “We are hoping to continue to stay in contact with this original group of youth. It would be great if we can get this exhibit shown in more places around Malaysia and the world. “Mister Shafer continues, “They are really special, and extremely talented. I am worried as they are getting to an age where schooling will not be available for them anymore; I am not sure what they will do. It would be amazing if we could help some of them get into art schools or universities to continue growing in this field, but that would require a scholarship or donations. If anyone out there wants to help please let me know. I have a couple of the students in mind who I know would excel in any art program.” There’s no doubt these kids will be successful in life, and they deserve every chance they can get! So, any takers? I can assure you, you will not be sorry if you give these youngsters a chance!
Take a look at some awesome pictures taken by the Refugee kids-turning-photographers:
Upcoming rays-of-hope projects…
For the future Mister Shafer will be working with Somalian refugees in Malaysia on a similar project. He thought it would be absolutely fabulous if they could organize an exhibition showing both the work of the Somali children and the photos of the Burmese refugees, and even make a photo book of these projects.
Hopefully this project inspires others to do similar work, and support the refugees living in their country. If we do not allow these vulnerable young humans to feel loved and respected, they will not end up being confident contributors to whatever society they live in. Therefore it is in everyone’s best interest to help them be successful.
Word up Mister Shafer, I couldn’t have said it better! So c’mon people, move it, get in gear we have some extra special works of art to spread and stories to tell!!!