Sunday, September 4, 2016

Compassion for refugees

IF your country was at war, or if you faced violence, torture or genocide because you believed in a different god or had a different skin colour or cultural practice, how would you feel? If your country was not safe, where would you go? It’s natural to want the best for yourself and your loved ones. You would run away. This would make you a refugee. However, being a refugee is too often like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. 

While refugees may have left the troubles of their own country, being unwelcome foreigners in another country has its own problems. No work (livelihood), no education for their children, no healthcare and perhaps no future. The gloomy and trying conditions in countries in which refugees seek refuge are likely to be a long one because the problems in their home country may take time to get fixed. 

In Malaysia, based on the 2014 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Fact Sheet, there were 142,831 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. From Myanmar, there were 132,629, comprising 52,056 Chins, 34,871 Rohingyas, 11,765 Myanmar Muslims, 7,901 Rakhine, 3,630 Burmese and Bamars, 5,397 Mon, 5,323 Kachins and other ethnicities. There were 10,202 refugees and asylum seekers from other countries. 

UNHCR believes that there were 35,000 unregistered asylum seekers, whom UNHCR is working to register. While the sheer number may be a shock to many Malaysians, we are no strangers to refugees. In the 1970s, 250,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived by boat and were provided temporary shelter in Pulau Bidong, south of Pulau Redang. From the 1970s to 1980s, around 50,000 Filipino Muslim refugees were supported in Sabah when they fled conflicts in Mindanao.

 In the 1980s, several thousand Cambodian Muslim refugees were offered permanent residency in Malaysia. In the 1990s, several hundred Bosnians were provided asylum when their country was plunged into civil war. More recently, last October, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak announced that Malaysia would receive up to 3,000 Syrian refugees.

 However, going back even further in Malaysia’s history, it can be argued that the Malaysia you and I know was founded by a “refugee”. A refugee not in the strict sense of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, also known as the 1951 Refugee Convention, but rather as a refugee fleeing violence and seeking out a safer place for refuge. If this does not sound anything like the history that you have learnt in primary or secondary school, perhaps a refresher on the history of Parameswara (Iskandar Shah) may help. 

Parameswara, king of Tamasek (Singapore), fled the island and settled in Malacca in 1401. He fled Tamasek because his home was attacked by Majapahits with 300 warships and 200,000 men. It is said that Parameswara, while sitting under a tree in Malacca, was emboldened when he saw a weaker mousedeer elude his hunting dog. He possibly identified with the mousedeer and seeing this as a good omen, established his court at Sungai Melaka. The rest, they say, is history. So from our history to modern times, Malaysia has hosted refugees. 

While there are many reasons why this is the case — such as geography, climate and economy — at the heart of it, I believe that Malaysians are grounded in hospitality, compassion and kindness. We know what it means to be in need or like the mousedeer hunted by a dog and, so, we are willing to help others as best as we can. While governments consider long-term solutions to the plight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees in our region, the tens of thousands here in Malaysia can do with your help. 

What kind of help? Not necessarily with financial or material support, access to education (nearly 30,000 of the refugees in Malaysia are children) nor access to health, but understanding and compassion. Understand that they did not leave their country just because they wanted to but because they had to. Having compassion, knowing that, “there but for the grace of God go I”. Understanding and compassion are built from encounters. 

If you do not know a refugee working in a restaurant, or cannot find an education centre teaching refugee children, there are also non-governmental organisations and faith based organisations working with these refugees. I found many touching stories of refugee resilience at Caring for others never makes us weak. It only makes us stronger. DANIEL LO, Special officer (human rights) to Senator Datuk Paul Low, minister in the Prime Minister's Department

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