From refugee to community leader: A single mother’s story

She needed support at first, now Yusra assists other struggling refugees in Malaysia.

Mention basketball and Yusra Ali Saif Salem’s eyes light up. She hasn’t played her favourite sport in more than 30 years, and says, “it’s like holding a diamond in my hands,” because it reminds her of her childhood in Yemen, where she was born. 

It is a bittersweet moment for Yusra: While fond memories flood back, they also remind her that women are subjugated in her homeland. She was, for instance, forbidden to play any games as a girl. Ironically, it is in her adopted country, Malaysia, where Yusra lives as a refugee, that she has found a sense of freedom.

The civil war in Yemen and personal circumstances had forced Yusra to leave her family and friends in 2014. Alone with her then seven-year-old son, she used her savings to move to Kuala Lumpur, where an unknown future awaited her. 

As refugees are unable to work legally in the Southeast Asian country, Yusra struggled to make ends meet. The devoted mother’s main concerns revolve around her son, Abdul Rahman’s education and wellbeing. She cleaned homes to pay for basic necessities, but during lean times, relied on the kindness of others to survive.

Yusra never stops worrying about Abdul Rahman. She says, “I wish to be able to provide all the amenities for my child, for instance, going to a theme park.”

“I worry about raising my child and how we will make it through.”  

The tides turned when a benefactor discovered that she had trained as a hairdresser and make-up artist in Yemen (risking being ostracised by family members). Word of her talent spread within the refugee community. Despite having a limited supply of makeup and access to hairdressing equipment, Yusra established a clientele base. Realising the necessity of having employable skills, this thoughtful woman started conducting workshops for other refugee women.

Yusra believes that life is about sharing and encourages other refugees to contribute their time and services to help each other. She has worked tirelessly with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to facilitate their refugee programmes, enlisted the help of medical volunteers for infirmed refugees and made her home a refuge for all in need.  Her active engagement has given her a voice amongst refugees and they recognise her as one of their leaders. 

The resilience of this soft-spoken lady is a guiding force, particularly for other women. She says, “I wish all mothers, single mothers, to be brave and a model for every refugee. To be strong so they don’t need to ask anyone for anything.” 

Inspired by her late mum’s generosity, Yusra hopes to continue helping the refugee community, embracing all who approach her. In turn, she wishes that her son would do the same. 

The life of a refugee is tough, and for single mothers like Yusra, her fearlessness shines like a beacon in this sea of uncertainty.

LET’S TALK ABOUT IT:
What would you like to say to Yusra in support of her efforts? Contribute to the discussion here. 

 

About Yusra Ali Saif Salem

According to the UNHCR, as of May 2019, 32 per cent of the refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia are female. Yusra is one of the stronger voices representing this section of the community. Her past experiences in Yemen, where she was from, has moulded her character and she is now a strong advocate for single mothers and active community engagement.

Contributors

Director

Amin Kamrani

Producer & Writer

Sharon Pereira

Producer

Kanwal Naseem

Camera

Saleh Sepas

Editor

Ali Saberi

Music

Komeil Zarin & Eunice Wong

Fixer

Hasan Al Akraa

Executive Producer

Von Tan