Saturday, June 29, 2013

Celebrity heads fundraiser to provide education for Somali refugees

Helping others: Deborah (kneeling, left) and Shikeen with some of the Somali refugee children and teenagers studying at the Fugee School
Helping others: Deborah (kneeling, left) and Shikeen with some of the Somali refugee children and teenagers studying at the Fugee Schoo

DOING an in-house documentary for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was an eye-opener for former beauty queen Deborah Priya Henry, who met a family of Somali refugees during the shoot. “The children were aged between 11 and 14 with no access to education. They had witnessed the effects of war back home,” said Deborah. She left the refugees’ apartment unit feeling quite shocked and realised how important education was in helping the children reintegrate into society in the future. Her initial efforts were piecemeal, with Deborah and her friend Shikeen Halibullah providing English and Mathematics tuition respectively to the children. But she soon found out that her effort was not sustainable in the long-term. “The other parents were asking for our help as well. Given our jobs, it took a toll on us,” she said. At that time, there was a Somali refugee, Shafie Mohamed, who was running tuition classes for families who could afford to pay the monthly fees. Deborah and Shikeen decided to team up with him to provide better education opportunities for the refugee children. “We work on raising funds while he runs the school,” said Deborah.

This is how the Somali Kids Education Fund, now known as Fugee School, came to open its doors in May 2009. Now in its fourth year, Fugee School has over 100 Somali refugee children ranging from four to 18-years-old, learning Math, Science, Art and English as well as Somali languages. The main focus, Deborah explained, was for the children to have an academic education with some experiential learning which would help them think out of the box and adapt better to their eventual reintegration into society. “Without education they are left with very little to help build a future. “Malaysia is a transit point for these refugees and they have very few opportunities for mainstream education here,” she added. Focusing on fundraising for the children though, is not without its challenges. Deborah related how she had been accused by certain quarters of neglecting disadvantaged Malaysians in favour of helping refugees. But she shrugged it off, saying that the discouraging voices were far outnumbered by the large support shown by her colleagues, friends and family. She and Shikeen also faced initial barriers from the Somali refugees themselves, such as traditional conservatism and mistrust about their intentions. Shafiee has become their link to the refugees, helping to overcome their fears and allowing the children to explore the outside world. Funding the effort has always been a challenge for Deborah and Shikeen. The ladies tried creative methods, such “sponsor a child” similar to Worldvision (of which Deborah is a child rights advocate), Now, Deborah has teamed up with fellow celebrity Marion Caunter, artiste Mizz Nina and shoe designer Jon Wong (of footwear label Z’Ng) to design shoes and sell them online to raise funds for Fugee School under an initiative called ‘Step Out’. “When you solicit funds to help the refugee children get an education, you just do not want to ‘take’ their money. “People get tired after a while, so we try to find innovative ways to keep it fresh,” said Deborah. For her, the effort is worth it when some of the children are later settled in other countries such as the United States, Australia or Europe and the school receives positive feedback from the resettling agents. Email or visit to donate or volunteer.