Malaysia: A day at the Fugee School: the beginning of new life

One of my greatest highlights whilst interning at the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights was going out and seeing the Fugee School in Gombak. Whilst Gombak would only be considered as the end of the line for many Malaysians, for a group of refugee children from Somali, it is actually the beginning of a whole new life.

As a recent law graduate with a passion for human rights, I wanted to experience so much more with my degree than just sitting in an office and I did find this via my internship with the MCCHR, but I also discovered so much more about the hands on approach to human rights, on this day in Gombak.

Malaysia has over 104,000 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the UNHCR, of which 11,000 are of school aged. Unfortunately, a very high percentage of refugee children are not currently receiving an education.

In contrast to Australia, who is a signatory with the Refugee convention, Malaysian refugees fare better in some respects. They still live within the community and are therefore receiving the support of the community. Whilst in Australia, they are placed within detention centres, making the eventual transition into the community harder.

I was given directions to the Fugee School and as I alighted from the train, I was a little bit anxious to be in an area so far from what I’ve known in my life in Australia. The poverty was obvious and as I held my bag a little closer, I found myself in a block of units which had paint peeling from the building, and was dark and smelt rather musty. As security required identification to let me in, I did momentarily wonder whether or not I’d see my Australian licence again when I left the building.

Security informed me where I was to go and this in itself was rather daunting. As someone who obviously lived a rather sheltered life globally, I was a little afraid to walk through the underground car-park, past the lift with an obvious sign informing me that the lift was broken and up a flight of stairs, until I eventually found myself in a dark corridor in front of a door with a padlocked steel gate.  As I waited, I thought of the contrasts to my school days at an elite ladies private college in the leafy suburbs of Sydney.

I was met by Shafie Mohamed, one of the principals of the centre, and he showed me around. There wasn’t really much to it. It was a small unit broken into three small classrooms. In one, the tiles on the floor were lifting up and I was advised not to walk on them in the event that I harm myself. Despite the obvious flaws, the room was painted brightly, the children’s work was hung proudly around the room and there was warmth found within.

This was such a contrast to my own schooling which had all the modern conveniences supposedly conducive to attaining an education, but with so much attention drawn to the facades, a child can become lost and find themselves struggling to fit in, as not much attention is given to the individual.

At the Fugee School, to 120 refugee children who have experienced life beyond anything I could comprehend, this is a place where they can learn and become empowered. The children don’t possibly even see the urgent repairs that are required and there are certainly no Parents & Friends Associations squabbling over the size of the decking on the new swimming pool. Everyone at the Fugee School is just grateful for this opportunity to learn and as a result of the transient nature of being a refugee, their schooling caters to the individual. Such a mammoth task!

When Deborah Henry arrived, any thoughts of meeting an indulgent beauty queen were quickly dismissed as she warmly shook my hand. This lady was just as at home in amongst this poverty as she was gracing the stage of Miss Universe in dresses worth thousands, and that truly says something about her character.

Deborah, as her role with World Vision, was introduced to a family of Somali refugees and she was taken aback by the fact that the children weren’t receiving an education. As a university graduate of Political Science and Economics and a daughter of a teacher, she is well versed in the opportunities afforded to someone because of an education.

So, together with her friend, Shikeen Halibullah, they began teaching the children of refugee families and upon meeting up with Shafie, who was also educating refugee children, formed what became known as The Fugee School.

Deborah told me that the second unit they used to have was no longer available to them and she was wondering how they would be able to fit all the children into their downscaled school, but would somehow work out something. Despite many adversities, the principals continued to take a very positive approach. This was never about what they should have, but was always about making the best of what they did have.

Deborah told me that when she started, she gave the children pencils and asked them to draw a picture, but surprisingly, the children didn’t know how to be creative. At that time, having only known refugee camps as a result from fleeing the violence in Somalia, their cognitive abilities didn’t include an imagination. As a mother who has always enjoyed the inherent beauty of a child’s innocence and the creativity that is derived from this, I was shocked and saddened to think that a child didn’t have an imagination.

Unfortunately, the school was still on holidays, so I didn’t get to meet the children, but Deborah showed me some of their work and I was surprised by their high standards of comprehension, their obvious awareness of the environment, and the empathy shown towards others, which surpassed that of any child I’d met in Australia at their same age. As future adults, how the children are treated today will define who they will become and this was at the forefront of my mind as we talked.

Despite the fact that many of the children will only be at the school for a short period of time, the children are embraced and supported to achieve on both an academic and personal level. They are nurtured to believe in themselves and to overcome any adversities they will meet as a result of being a refugee. To most of the children, this may be the very first structured schooling environment they will ever have and Deborah, Shafie and all involved, ensure that they are given an environment which is not only conducive to learning, but will hold them in good stead as they grow.

Despite the obvious structural flaws to the building, the school is still able to give the children what they need. This, in itself, says a lot. To learn, one doesn’t necessarily require the pool and the modern conveniences; a child only requires the chance to learn, coupled with a loving and supportive environment.

I was also very impressed with the creative manner in which they raise funds. Deborah informed me that it wasn’t about putting their hand out asking for funds; it required innovation and consequently enabled a form of empowerment. In the past, the children have made little gifts which were sold, Deborah has teamed up with Hello for a fundraising evening and now, their latest endeavour was an initiative is called ‘Step Out’, which involved teaming up with shoe designer Jon Wong, artiste Mizz Nina and friend, Marion Caunter to design a range of shoes with proceeds going to the school.

So, situated in an area in which I was initially frightened to visit, a tiny little unit which is in desperate need of repairs, is school to group of 120 Somalia refugees. These children, despite being refugees and having endured adversities incomprehensible to me, are being given so much more than just the ability to read and write. They are being nurtured to overcome everything they have lived through thus far and to become empowered to take on the uncertainties of their future.