Saturday, October 5, 2013

Meeting with Burmese Community Leaders - Coalition of Burma Ethics Malaysia (COBEM)


In 2011, Dr. O'Neal of our Fulbright team took some pictures of one of the more well-funded and functioning Burmese community schools - Chin Women's Organization school. We included these photos to illustrate the Burmese community schools description we give below from our recent September, 2012 meeting with Burmese community leaders about their schools. Note how there is no refugee school sign outside the building, so no immigration police can target their students and teachers.

School director

The Burmese refugee teachers. Note the mural, which is rare at refugee schools. This school has partnered with a wealthy expat private school which has offered some resources like used textbooks and students who came and painted the mural.

Students. Note there are no desks.

There is a fan since it is sweltering. UNHCR gives most of the schools fans.

The students love seeing their friends at school.

Expat private school donated these texts


Clothing made and sold by the refugee teachers and community members to raise funds for their school.

Burmese teacher sewing during school holiday, in order to make clothing to raise school funds.

Expat volunteers come in and teach the students hip hop and tennis, in addition to computers, once every week or so. Almost none of the other refugee school visited had extracurriculars like these. This school was connected to expats in a way that really enhanced their education. Note in this photo that there are not consistent teachers for each class, since many of the teachers have to eek out an illegal living outside of the school in order to survive, so the teachers do not work full-time there, but many often live at the school at night.

September 26, 2012

Our fearless focus group leader, Jennifer, met with Burmese community leaders to get a birds-eye view of the largely hidden Burmese community refugee schools in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- the schools' resources, size, and teacher training. With this information, we can better understand how to help the refugee teachers and students.


Note that there are many more Burmese refugee schools than the 7 schools described below. Burmese refugees make up approximately 85% of the 100,000 refugees in Malaysia. UNHCR-Malaysia has documented a total of 75 refugee informal learning centers, or schools, in Malaysia. Based on those numbers, we could estimate that about 64 of the refugee schools service Burmese students, but there are no clear numbers from UNHCR on how many of the schools reach out to specific ethnic groups. 


UNHCR reported a couple years ago that there are almost 20,000 refugee school-aged children in Malaysia who are not allowed access to Malaysian government schools. Only 30% of school-aged refugees in Malaysia attend these hidden community learning centers (5,200 students), for less than half a day each school day, and only until about the age of 12. There are so many refugee students striving to get an education that the second half of the school day brings in another set of students for the afternoon session. 


Below are notes from Jennifer's meeting with Burmese community leaders. She first documents general observations across Burmese community schools, then she describes 7 specific schools in more detail:

General Burmese community school and student information:

UNHCR pays teachers RM500 (US$165) only if they have UNHCR cards and if there are more than 50 students in the school. Teachers are required to go for training in Harvest for a year and only after 1 year they get compensation from UNHCR. As such, many teachers are not able to make ends meet and find it hard to survive. 
The Burmese leaders report that refugee kids tend to stop schooling by the age of 15 in general. We've heard from UNHCR that most of the refugee students cannot get access to schooling past age 12.
UNHCR does provide textbooks and materials, a start up, and a one-off grant.
Students face security issues when they go to school – mostly robberies from local Malaysian kids
Most Burmese community schools waive the fees if families cannot afford it and if the child is an orphan. 
There are some Burmese learning centres outside Kuala Lumpur – in Cameron Highlands and Penang – but not many and the KL Burmese leaders do not have direct contact with them.

Information on specific Burmese community refugee schools that COBEM identifies:

Community 1: Kachin Community (Kachin Refugee Committee)


Two learning centres with 240 students in total, approximately 30-40 students in one class during one session
14 teachers (male & females) in two learning centres, 2 male cooks – all personnel are refugees
Students’ fees: RM50 for primary school, RM70 for secondary school. Fees include 3 meals and transportation costs.
Teachers lack experience and ability. Most have not received any training after the basic Harvest Centre training.
Courses taught are fixed by UNHCR and NGOs 
Rent for the centres are paid by the church – but bills are paid for by the communities.

Community 2: Chin Community (Chin Refugee Community)

Not too sure exactly how many students or teachers in the school but teachers have expressed that they are short of staff as many have been resettled in the last few months.
Teachers function independent from the community
Currently the main need for the school is a field and to cover the premises' rental fees
Students fees: RM30-40

Community 3: Arakan Community (Arakan Refugee Relief Community)

1 Learning centre with 60 students
2 permanent teachers but only one gets a constant pay from UNHCR, 2 part time volunteer teachers
Classes are often overcrowded and so they organize outings just to get them out of the classroom
Due to the overcrowding, student encounter a lot of Health problems – including flu, fever
Education programs are developed by the community

Community 4: Shan Community (Shan Refugee Organization)

Only about 10 students in the community as most of the have been resettled
The only classes they have are Chinese and Shan language classes
There are no able teachers in the community to teach other subjects such as maths, science, English.
Teachers do not get an income from UNHCR

Community 5: Mon Community (Mon Refugee Organization)

1 learning centre with 60 students
5 refugee teachers but all are unregistered with UNHCR and have no experience teaching the subjects they have been assigned to teach. An NGO in Ampang also provides part time teachers. 
As the teachers are unregistered they receive no remuneration from UNHCR and are not interested to teach as they are trying to make ends meet themselves. At times they do not turn up for classes. 

Community 6: Karen Community (Malaysian Karen Organization)

1 learning centre with 80 students
Teachers are not qualified; Students are Grade 1-5
Students are not able to speak and write English or communicate with the teachers

Community 7: Karenni Community 

School mainly for adults
Subjects include: English communication skills, grammar and vocabulary, speaking and listening
Textbooks come from UNHCR
Teachers are not registered with UNHCR and all provisions are from the community itself

Community 8: Chin Community (Alliance of Chin Refugee)

There are 17 communities under this alliance with 1400 students
One learning centre to provide rep – has 174 students
Teacher compensation is low so many people in the community prefer to go into other professions and the schools face problems in attracting qualified teachers due to this low compensation