Sunday, December 29, 2013

Education for all, even refugees

DECEMBER 29, 2013

As 2013 draws to a close, Malaysia has seen its fair share of events with people who either inspire or bring despair to the country. It has been a year where some feel a sense of entitlement, that it is their way or the highway, that they have to make a name for themselves no matter what and where the little people's hopes have risen and have also been shattered. Yet, there are the few who do good work quietly to help their fellow man, to make Malaysia a better place. Over the next few days, The Malaysian Insider will feature some of them – Malaysia's Inspiring People 2013 – the ordinary heroes who never cease to amaze us with their perseverance, diligence, empathy and vision for a happier nation.

Deborah Henry says coming from a family with a background in education, she cannot allow the refugee children without access to education. - Pic by Mary O'Donovan, December 29, 2013.There are some people who fight red tape and try to cut it. And there are people who decide there must be a better way if the bureaucracy cannot be part of the solution. Deborah Priya Henry, holder of the Miss Universe Malaysia 2011 and Miss Malaysia World 2007 titles, is one of them.

It began with her chance encounter with four young refugee siblings from war-torn Somalia who were unable to go to school, no thanks to Malaysia not being a signatory of the United Nations' 1951 Refugee Convention, which mandates education for refugees.

So Henry roped in her friend Shikeen Halibullah, and they took over the task of teaching the four refugees.

Henry would soon discover that she could not walk away from the students, as more children pleaded to her to open a school.

"My mom is in education, my sister is in education. So, to me, there is no way that it is the 21st century when these children have no access to education.

"Someone needs to teach them how to write their name." she told The Malaysian Insider in Kuala Lumpur.

A view of a classroom at Fugee School, which is located somewhere in Selangor. - Pic by Mary O'Donovan, December 29, 2013.The private classes slowly evolved into an informal refugee school in May 2009, providing hope for 60 students, from pre-school age to those in their late teens.

Today, the school, called Fugee School and occupies a run-down apartment block somewhere in Selangor, with 110 students, all registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Henry said it was important to have the school near the community as most of them cannot afford to travel.

As a non-profit organisation, Fugee School relies on corporate donations and UNHCR grants, and charges a token RM5 monthly school fee on every student.

The school provides global education with a variety of subjects ranging from Somali to English and Mathematics, among other subjects, preparing students for resettlement in countries which are signatories to the refugee convention.

As part of the curriculum, students participate in many outdoor activities, helping them to boost their creativity and improve their public speaking skills.

Fugee School relies on corporate donations and UNHCR grants, and charges a monthy token fee of RM5. - Pic by Mary O'Donovan, December 29, 2013."The students have this thing called 'Insiders' where they talk about changing the world and they want to start within their community,” Henry said proudly, stressing that 'Insiders' was an initiative by the students themselves.

Said a former student of the school, "The school has changed the lives of the Somali refugees in Malaysia. Now we have a place to go to seek education as we cannot afford to go to a private school."

Unlike some of his friends who resettled in other countries, he decided to repay his community, and the school, by teaching English to his juniors.

Henry said seeing the development of the students, from being barely able to speak English to being able to speak in public, brought tears to her eyes.

"As much as their lives are tough here, the school has become important to many. It is a glimmer of hope and light." – December 29, 2013.