Beyond Charity – Building Capacity for Refugees
In April 2022, news that some 500 refugees had escaped a detention centre in the northern state of Kedah, Malaysia, triggered nationwide debates. The opposing reactions that followed the incident did not surprise me in the least. The rumblings about there being too many refugees in the country on the one hand and concerns about their treatment on the other, seemed all too familiar.
I had heard the same mixed bag of sentiments in the UK when I was working on Refugee Integration projects there. Amidst the voices of sympathy, there were always accusations of ‘Sponges’. ‘Parasites’ and ‘Liars.’ The list went on and on. So, you can be anywhere in the world but emotions will remain the same, particularly those relating to ‘the other’. That I am now back in my own country makes these negative assumptions all the more unpalatable. Did I really grow up among this hatred?
Proving that people are misguided in their perceptions and beliefs is not easy. I will not dwell on the whys and hows of stereotyping now, but suffice to say, I believe that those unsavoury remarks were dished out of ignorance. You only have to ask: “Ever spoken to a refugee?” “Ever tried to find out why?” What do you think their answers would be?
Having switched from journalism to community work in the UK gave me a different perspective on global news. I wanted to be among the people who, through no fault of theirs, became the victims of the political shenanigans and conflicts that forced them to leave their homeland. It was time to be among the vulnerable men, women and children who were in the UK out of the unimaginable miseries they suffered. There were not just figures that made up a good story but real people capable of telling their own. I wanted to support them at close quarters. I needed to understand.
So, I was hardly surprised when I met Htoi San Nhkum (Sam), who greeted me with a torrent of statements, denying those venomous words. “Refugees want to be self-sufficient. We don’t want to be relying on handouts forever“ she begins.
“Of course, we are grateful for all the support we get, but we want to be financially independent. We want to learn skills and be educated, so that we can prepare for our future”.
Sam, a refugee from Myanmar, is the head of the Kachin Refugee Learning Centre, located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. Step into the backwaters of Bukit Bintang, a commercial melting pot in the city centre and you will find its potholed back lanes awash with social and economic activities run by diverse groups of displaced individuals who have fled their countries - men and women hard at work, and usually for a pittance.
The Kachin Refugee Learning Centre is sandwiched between rows of delipidated shop lots and is only accessible via the back street. As you walk through its creaky entrance, an air of cautious optimism hits you. There is a mixed sense of industriousness, hope and trepidation enveloping the windowless room, which houses Kachin children, seen studiously bent over exercise books at a dozen or more desks.
Absorbed in their learning, these Kachin children were being educated outside the state system. As Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is not obliged to ensure that public services are accessible to refugees. Being at this alternative centre of learning feels as if I have stumbled upon a unique world with its own set of rules and values. It also feels like a fiercely protected, independent enclave.
“Yes, this is our own safe haven for the children as we make the most of our lives in transition. These children would have been left without education, if this centre had not been set up 15 years ago,” explains Sam.
Refugees and undocumented migrants rely on community centres to support them with the necessities they cannot receive from official sources.
At the Kachin centre, there are stacks of fabric and sewing machines in a room, indicating a spirit of enterprise that goes beyond the peeling walls. Outside the room, a poster of global flags looks as if it has been put up to remind themselves of their transitional lives and of the possibilities of other worlds awaiting them at the end of the long wait for UNHCR’s resettlement approval.
For refugees, living temporary lives is a matter of adjustment and acceptance. Sam herself has been patiently waiting to be resettled in a third country for nearly 15 years and considers Malaysia home for now. However, she emphasises that there is nothing more demoralising than to be waiting on charity, while in transition.
“We work where we can find jobs, sometimes even in faraway places. If there is anything we can learn to generate more income we will jump at it.” says Sam.
And jump they did, these strong and enterprising Kachin refugee women, who did not hesitate to grab the opportunity to turn a gift of ten sewing machines into a business vision. The machines were donated by the International Medical University (IMU), through IMU Cares, which operates under the Community Engagement Office for a mask-making project. For the community, this was not just relief from the loss of income during the Covid-19 Lockdown, but it promises the road to financial independence.
Following this, a Digital Literacy and Entrepreneurship programme offered jointly by the Women’s Aid organisation, IMU and Uniqlo, has seen women refugee communities like Sam’s eagerly signing up to pick up new skills. IT and marketing skills are both prerequisites to securing financial independence.
It is heartening to note these efforts to empower refugees through capacity-building. They drown away the negativity and bring hope. As Professor Khoo Suan Phaik, Dean for IMU’s University Community Engagement points out, offering support which can potentially bring both immediate and lasting benefits that can affect sustainable outcomes is critical. It is what refugees need most.