Saturday, January 8, 2011

A beacon of hope for refugee kids

PETALING JAYA: Unlike most kids his age, Naw Kip Thang, 13, has never spent more than a year in a single school. Forced to flee his homeland, Naw is the son of Burmese refugees.
Stuck in Malaysia, Naw’s family is waiting for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to relocate them to a different country.
Being a non-citizen, Naw has little choice when it comes to education. His only hope lies in schools set up by Burmese refugees.
And the Burmese Refugee Organisation (BRO) school may just be the light at the end of the tunnel for Naw and many others like him. Located in Puchong, the school houses some 70 Burmese children aged between seven and 15.
Guided by five teachers – refugees themselves – the children spend six days a week, eight hours a day, learning Mathematics, English, Burmese, Science and computers.
For the refugee children, who stay in hostels to attend the school, the initiative serves as a stepping stone towards a brighter future.
According to BRO coordinator Moe Moe Khing, there are more than 50 Burmese refugee schools in Malaysia but many of them have limited facilities and can only accommodate a handful of students at a time.
She added that there are more than 10,000 Burmese refugee children in Malaysia. Of this number, only 40% are receiving some kind of education.
The Burmese are also divided along ethnic lines and this makes the situation worse. A sense of tribalism exists among their 135 ethnic groups.
Burmese refugee organisations have been known to take care of their own, while sidestepping others; even when it concerns education.
It is a challenge that BRO intends to take head on.
“Our main intention is to unite all the communities. We include all ethnicities. We also welcome those rejected by their own community,” Moe said at the organisation’s fifth anniversary yesterday.
The anniversary saw the opening of the school’s newest premises in Puchong, which came with brand new computers – something other refugee schools never had before.
Even with the new office and equipment, BRO said there are still major stumbling blocks. “We are a refugee school. We have no right to graduate them, or award them certificates,” Moe noted.
Bleak future for the refugee kids
Nevertheless, she said the school’s mission is to give the Burmese children a basic education through the syllabuses provided by the UNHCR.
She said that it would be a head-start if a refugee family is relocated to a different country.
The BRO coordinator also added that many Burmese children do not even have a firm understanding of the Burmese language.
This is because many of them are surrounded by members of their own dialect, and are forced to spend much of their life running from persecution, instead of sitting in a classroom.
Even with assistance from the UNHCR and many Malaysian NGOs, Moe said that much of BRO’s funding come from its 15,000 members and the Burmese community.
The school’s journey was also no bed of roses, the BRO coordinator revealed.
“We didn’t know how to stand or survive,” she said, adding that many Burmese organisations initially gave them the cold shoulder. As such, they were forced to go door-to-door to gain support.
“We had to explain to each of them that we are all Burmese. We explained that basic education is very important for the future,” she said.
Many of the children do not stay in the school for long since some parents have to work in different parts of the country. Others are merely fleeing the long arms of the law.
Moe said it did not help that the police sometimes came to arrest the students; a practice that has stopped in recent times.
“All people who come from Burma work in the factories or are odd-job workers. Refugees don’t have a proper location to stay, their parents don’t have proper jobs, so the children can’t get a proper education,” Moe said.
A refugee herself, Moe said that many refugee children sometimes have to forgo their education and take up jobs just to make ends meet.
She also said that while most of these children were born in Burma, a rising number are born in Malaysia. They too will not have a proper education.
Moe also admitted that very few of the school’s students will be relocated to developed countries such as the United States, Australia and Canada.
“Maybe about 20% (of refugees) relocate to other countries,” she said.
But the bleak scenario has not dampened Naw’s spirits. After a year with BRO’s refugee school, his teacher are calling him and his friends, fast learners.
And when asked what he wanted to do when he grows up, the shy Burmese lad replied: “I want to play football in America.”