As at May, there were 157,580 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia, 41,690 of whom were children below the age of 18. Unlike others their age, these children — having fled war and persecution in their home countries — are not accorded the right to proper education. By virtue of not being a signatory of UNHCR’s 1951 Refugee Convention, Malaysia is not required to provide education for refugees. So, like their parents, who are not allowed to seek employment, they face an uncertain future.
In addressing the issue of education, many refugee communities take it upon themselves to run their own learning centres. But a lack of teachers and funding to pay their wages often mean inconsistent lessons and low-quality education.
Social enterprise E-lluminate aims to provide a sustainable solution for such centres, focusing on the ones that face funding and operational challenges. This is being done at three locations in Cheras where teachers have been hired to teach at the centres full-time. “They are experienced teachers who have either worked in local schools or with refugees. We also have a trial period for the teachers to adapt to teaching here,” co-founder Teoh Min Chia explains. Run like a typical school, students have set schooling hours during which English, Maths and Science are taught.
“Working with refugee children is quite different due to the language barrier, a wide age range within the group and the absence of a strong [educational] foundation,” says co-founder Kim Lim, who also co-founded award-winning social enterprise, The Picha Project, and Hands of Hope Malaysia. Interestingly, the food catering endeavour (then known as Hands of Hope Kitchen) and E-lluminate have their origins in Hands of Hope Malaysia. However, upon realising the diverse nature of the various refugee-related causes, the founding members decided that it was best to manage each segment separately. Today, all three organisations continue to thrive in their respective fields.
“Picha started with education in mind but along the way, we managed to solve the economic issue faced by the families instead. This also meant that children were going to school but not all learning centres offered quality education,” says Lim, who has had a desire to help people since young.
Co-founders and former college mates Teoh and Lim are passionate about refugee-related causes. Active volunteers even prior to the founding of E-lluminate last August, they discovered that refugees often live their lives in limbo, unsure of what is to come. The two-woman team believes that quality education will prepare the children on the off chance of a resettlement and will be useful wherever they go next.
Currently, the refugees at the learning centres are from Myanmar but E-lluminate is prepared to accept anyone. “Locals who are very poor are welcome to join too,” says Lim. Teoh explains: “While we are working with refugees now, once our methods are found to be effective, we hope to replicate [them], which could include alternative learning centres for stateless children.”
To ensure sustainability, the organisation also tries to equip students with vocational and entrepreneurship skills. This is its other mission — besides making quality education accessible — in the hope of alleviating the burden of centres, which typically rely on donations to operate. The end goal of these initiatives is to nurture independent young people who are capable of becoming change-makers within their community.
The entrepreneurship-related activities include upcycling workshops run by the students and board game sessions that are open to the public, for a fee. Besides maximising the use of the learning centres — as there are no classes on weekends — and providing a source of income, there are intangible benefits for the children such as allowing them to hone their communication skills.
While we are working with refugees now, once our methods are found to be effective, we hope to replicate [them], which could include alternative learning centres for stateless children
In terms of funding, Lim uses her experience to come up with a win-win solution. She says, “I try to strike a ‘do good deal’ with the sponsors to invest in the future [of the children]” — a feat that can be challenging as there is a perception that refugees are outsiders. “I do get asked why help refugees instead of anyone else but to us, the choice was obvious. There were three refugee centres right in front of our college — so why not?”
That said, the ladies agree that there are many others who are willing to contribute to the cause. “The misconceptions about this group of people include the notion that they are here to receive the benefits of being refugees but I think most of them would rather be independent and [work to] earn for themselves,” Teoh explains.
On the difficulties attached to refugees not being allowed to work here, Lim comments, “People sometimes ask, ‘then why did they choose to come here?’ My response is this: in a moment of desperation — and considering that visa-free entry into Malaysia is possible for [citizens of] so many countries — it is often an easy choice, not [being] fully aware of the working restrictions. If they had known that they could not work here, I think 80% of them would not have chosen to come.”
Seeing that they are a small team, E-lluminate is always open to strategic partnerships and hopes to explore the digitalisation of education in the near future. Those interested to participate in the cause are welcome to visit the learning centre first. Lim suggests setting a reasonable time frame for volunteering in order to make any real impact. In everything they do, the duo are guided by what the letter “E” in the organisation’s name represents — education, empowerment and equality.
Until a successful model can be achieved, the good folks at E-lluminate will continue to work towards building a sustainable education solution for children seeking refuge here. There is a proverb that goes: “It takes a village to raise a child.” In this context, any amount of kindness and support from the people of the host country would certainly go a long way in making it possible for refugee children to have a brighter future.
This article first appeared on July 2, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.