Saturday, October 5, 2013

Visiting a Refugee School in Kuala Lumpur

This is an adaption of the blog entry posted at on 6 December. 2012. This posting gives a history of the project from the point of view of a project participant (me), who was asked to be on the team that submitted a proposal to the Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund (AEIF). The proposal was to implement an "intervention" to "help empower the refugee teachers and improve the emotional and academic future of their students." Our project was selected and funded (just under $25K). Then reality set in. The majority of team members are not currently living in Malaysia. Only one team member in Malaysia, Wai Sheng, is a psychologist. The State Department disallowed paying a principal investigator/project manager. Wai Sheng jumped in as coordinator and (unpaid) project manager. 

With the focus groups over, the major challenge was how to recruit and train 100 teachers. In December the effort to identify potential trainees began in earnest. Wai Sheng, two of the trainers, and I met at Malaysian Care. The conversation at Malaysian Care focused on logistic issues - how many schools, where were they located, the number of teachers in each school, and possible formats for each school. At the end of the conversation a small group of us headed out to visit a refugee school in Puda, a section of KL that houses several refugee schools. 
Shop Houses in Puda

Malaysia has not ratified the UN Convention relating to the status of refugees; therefore, they have no legal right to be in Malaysia. (This linked article summarizes the history/summary of refugees in Malaysia.) The refugees live and blend into cities and towns, where they may crowd into small apartments. They are largely invisible to their neighbors.

The trainers and a refugee teacher

The partners - our team, refugee schools, Malaysian Care
A psychologist, a teacher, a community organizer

The sign on a school wall reminded refugees (potential con artists as well as victims) that UNHCR services are free. A UNHCR card, based on a case by case analysis of a refugee's case, allows one to work - it does not necessarily prevent police harassment and intimidation.

A consequence of government's lack of a refugee policy is that the children of refugees cannot attend government schools. Refugee communities have pooled their money to open and staff community schools. Because of the ambiguous situation of refugees these schools operate under a cloud, i.e., what happens if a school is discovered, raided, and the status of the children, their parents or teachers checked? The school we visited has 80 students from 3 years old to 16 and three teachers. Volunteers teach English. They normally come once a week. As is true of volunteers everywhere - they don't always come each week.

It may be a refugee school, but it still has rules

Team members in a classroom/meeting room

The Library

The center piece of the kitchen - the rice cooker

The school we visited is part of the Chin community from Myanmar. They tend to have more resources than other refugee communities. We spoke with a young teacher whose command of English was excellent. He largely taught himself English. In addition to teaching he is working with Malaysia Cares to develop a youth center for teenagers and young men - the group that is most prone to act out their boredom. Prior to teaching he had a job as a clerk. He was promoted because of his English abilities, but this drew unwanted attention and threats from other refugees. He was then removed from a dangerous situation and hired as a teacher.The community can only fund three teachers, so he was at risk of losing his position if a more qualified person applied for a teaching position.

We asked the teacher for his opinion about the need for training on children's mental health needs. He recalled how helpful it was when a group from UNHCR pointed out that one child was too quiet and needed special attention. We asked our logistic questions - the first discussion of many other similar ones to follow Among ourselves we debated reaching out to other communities, while recognizing the constraints of available time and money. Even working with a well organized community takes time - contacts have to be made and we have to convince agencies and schools that we are offering something of value.