Saturday, January 8, 2011

Christmas in Malaysia & Refugee in Malaysia

by CHERYL POO (cherylpoo@thestar.com.my)
Strong faith and kindness from strangers have made Christmas a most cherished season for young Myanmar refugees in Malaysia.
FIFTEEN-year-old Chu Tin sits quietly content, his hands firmly clasped around his prize – a certificate and a bible. He has worked hard all year at school and is pleased to receive the Best Student award in his class.
It’s the year-end Christmas party where six refugee schools have combined for half a day of fun. Twinkly-eyed and cheeks flushed with excitement, 300 Chin child refugees from Myanmar are having the time of their lives in a little chapel in Kuala Lumpur where they have come to celebrate together.
Festive fun: Children perform enthusiastically when given the opportunity, at their year-end Christmas party. ‘They enjoy nothing more than entertaining a supportive audience,’ says their headmaster, Roger.
Silver bells and colourful balloons line the wooden pews and pillars, lighting up the otherwise plain hall.
Several parties have been organised for these children in the weeks leading up to Christmas, a season they anticipate all year through. Just the day before, a hotel in Kuala Lumpur had invited some of the children for a Christmas luncheon; they were given presents and, to the kids’ delight, asked to perform a few numbers for the hotel staff and guests. It was heartening to witness the youngsters’ joy when they found brand new books, stationery, clothes and other goodies in neatly-wrapped boxes, all for them.
Their troubles temporarily forgotten, a symphony of happy choruses filled the air as the adults looked on with wide smiles.
The Chin children are nothing short of a joy to be with. Like the adults in their community, they are a warm and affectionate lot. When the children perform, what stands out is their enthusiasm and spirit. Even those in the audience are amazingly supportive. They shout, cheer and pay full attention as their friends perform. Little ones as young as three earn thunderous applause as they showcase their talents; pitch and timing may not be perfect but the audience doesn’t seem to mind.
“These children are always eager to learn and they do so quickly because they don’t take things for granted,” says Susan*, a volunteer Malaysian teacher from a local church.
Ah-Mun, a Chin teacher agrees: “They are a pleasure to teach especially when it comes to performing arts. They have great showmanship and a great capacity for learning new things, namely languages, singing and dancing.” Discipline problems are almost unheard of.
According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR Malaysia spokesperson Yante Ismail, as of November 2010, there is a record 92,200 UNHCR-registered refugees in Malaysia. “Ninety-two percent of these refugees are from Myanmar, comprising the various tribes such as the Rohingyas, Myanmar Muslims, Mon, Kachins and Chins. From this figure, 7,700 are children below the age of 18 from the Chin ethnicity.”
(The Chin State is located in western Myanmar. It spans 36,019sqkm and is made up of a sparsely populated mountainous region.)
Some of the Chin refugees in Malaysia were born here while the majority came after a harrowing journey from Myanmar.
At the moment, there is no governing body for these Chin communities that take refuge in the Klang Valley but through the collective effort of various non-profit organisations and devoted volunteers from the public, approximately 5,000 of these children are able to access education through informal learning centres as well as enjoy good meals supplied to them at school.
Classmates cheering wildly as their friends perform on stage.
It has been a long road for these children and the excitement they display at festive concerts and parties belies the hardship and heartbreak they have had to endure.
Most have travelled to Malaysia with their parents or relatives under harsh conditions in search of freedom but even here, their worst nightmares are not over.
For most of us, it is impossible to imagine what it must be like to be rejected in one’s home country so much so that one has to seek asylum elsewhere – but sadly, that is what life has become for the Chin people since General Ne Win led a coup that toppled the Burmese civilian government in 1962.
In Myanmar, where the Burmese – or Bamar – represent the majority race and the military junta rule, the Chin tribes continually face persecution and prejudice. As Myanmar is predominantly a Buddhist nation, minority tribes such as the Chins – which are one out of the 135 minority ethnic groups there – are oppressed for their faith and race.
“We are denied jobs, citizenship benefits and as the millitary junta pleases, they raid our homes to recruit adults for unpaid labour and children for the army,” says 31-year-old Roger*, one of six headmasters attached to the Chin Student Organisation in KL. Roger has lived here for nearly three years and almost all of his time is spent developing an education framework for the children in this tight-knit community. There are 32 Chin teachers – university graduates – working in six schools within KL.
The children enjoying lunch funded by a kind expatriate couple, Geoff and Lorna Briscoe. NGOs and charitable donors often provide food and other necessities for the Chins.
“I have a Bachelor of Science in Geology from Kalay University in Sagaing Division (situated by the Chin State border) but I did not stand a chance in securing a job in Myanmar; priority would naturally go to the Burmese,” testifies 26-year-old Biak, the second of four sibblings in his family to leave Myanmar for greener pastures.
He explains that many of his people leave their homes and travel to India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia to seek asylum. Biak was only 23 when he embarked on the perilous seven-day journey through the deep jungles of Indochina in search of freedom.
Despite dire circumstances, it is the Chin people’s unfaltering faith that has seen them through many a dark night.
Their Christian faith dates back to the early 1800s when one of the first few American Baptist missionaries to Burma, Adoniram Judson, spent 40 years establishing Baptist churches in the nation.
The open-minded Chin tribe embraced the faith and thus began their spiritual heritage.
“We have been Christians for at least 100 years,” says Thawng Sian Kham, the president of Zomi Education Centre, which is one of the more established Chin education centres in Kuala Lumpur.
Despite many tribulations and oppression, the Christmas traditions and its original meaning are not lost on these simple folk.
“Back in Myanmar, relatives from near and far would travel to our home for a good time together. Sometimes, we head out to the beach or a park for a picnic. It’s beautiful to enjoy simple things like that without disturbance from the junta,” Roger says.
“It’s a time of celebration for God’s gift of his son to us. Christmas is a very precious occasion for our community where, in the morning, we worship and celebrate at church and later in the evening, we get together again for a dinner gathering where we continue our celebration by feasting and performing,” says Biakmaiwi, a 34-year-old mother-of-four Chin. Her children attend Roger’s school.
Christmas dinners are a communal effort where everyone chips in a little cash so that the women can put a feast together.
“It’s not a problem when some of the families cannot afford to contribute. Everyone is welcome and we are just thankful to have each other.”
Like many others who seek refuge in our country, Biakmaiwi’s story is tragic and poignant.
Although she is one of the more fortunate Chin women who have managed to flee Myanmar with her husband and children, her three-year stay here has not been one without pain.
A year ago, a friend’s emergency SMS at 4pm alerted her to a raid in a neighbouring block.
Local police and members of RELA often raid areas and capture these refugees – who are mistakenly regarded as illegal immigrants – and relocate them to detention facilities. Being caught could mean possible deportation, severence from family and possibly even physical assault.
(Then) seven-month pregnant Biakmaiwi grabbed her children and made a quick exit into a nearby field where they spent the gruelling night waiting until the officers had cleared the vicinity.
All were unharmed save for the baby; Biamaiwi went into premature labour from the intense physical duress and gave birth to a stillborn child. Painful stories like this have moved many NGOs, religious organisations, corporations and kind individuals to offer help whenever possible.
Spreading the yuletide cheer
Among kind contributors this yuletide season are 130 children from Pantai Baptist Church in Kuala Lumpur. A church staff member, Sue Shiew, has organised a popular gift concept – The Shoebox Project – through which local children will present a Christmas gift to a Chin child about the same age, and it can be anything that fits into a shoebox.
“We want to teach our children to give. There are many children out there who don’t even have bare necessities and we want our kids to understand the lesson of making things better for others,” Shiew explains.
Nine-year-old Asha Joanna Reddy says: “I’ve prepared a complete stationery set for a girl and I’m really looking forward to see how she will react when she gets it!”
Her sisters, Aathi Jane, 11 and Anita Joy, five, have prepared stationery, books, a soft toy and toy car as their gifts.
The beautiful part about all the love that pours in for the Chin community is that it happens beyond the festive season.
Bodies such as Malaysian Care, a non-profit Christian organisation that helps the underprivileged; local churches; and kind-hearted individuals continue to willingly pool their resources, time and effort to help out.
“When this particular Chin community was in its initial stages of settling down in KL four years ago, we came in as hands-on advisors to help them build their educational system. We mapped out a syllabus for the teachers and helped them establish a structure through which the children could learn English, Mathematics, General Science and Chin literature. Extracurricular activities for the children such as periodical physical activities and an annual sports day are included too.
“These teachers (Chin adults) have become independent now after three years of close guidance,” says education advisor Leong Wye Hoong of Malaysian Care. Malaysian Care’s early involvement with the Chin community garnered the attention of many other well-meaning organisations and today, a number of devoted individuals step in on a weekly basis to teach, provide meals and help out with odd jobs around the schools.
“Some are donors who help foot the bill for rental and other basic ammenities to keep these schools going,” Leong says.
Beatrice Thoeny, a kind-hearted expatriate who has been helping out, says: “The Chin people’s needs are neverending but we do what we can to ease their burden.”
Moved by the children’s plight, Thoeny has put her connections to good use by mobilising helpers to refurbish the school by repainting the walls and replacing the flooring. A delicious lunch is prepared for the children weekly too.
“We are beyond grateful for all the privisions that have been coming our way. I’m very happy to see our children so happy at this time of the year,” Roger says with a broad smile: “Thanks to the kindness of people who have now become our friends, we can experience the warmth of Christmas.”
・Some of the names in the article have been altered to preserve anonymity. Well-wishers who wish to contribute by volunteering or providing financial aid may e-mail the UNHCR at infomalaysia@unhcr.org. The UNHCR in Malaysia is not the official governing body for the Chin community but will be able to effectively channel resources to provide assistance to the refugees.