[Updated: June 29, 2021]
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At 18 years old — the age of shiny driving licences and college prospectuses full of promise — Heidy Quah founded Refuge for the Refugees. She had just spent four months teaching English to Chin refugees from Burma not much younger than she was, but their school, the Chin Children’s Education Centre, was about to close owing to a lack of funding.
Since the establishment of her non-governmental organisation in June 2012, Quah has expanded the scope of Refuge for the Refugees from a fundraising project for a single centre to setting up or restructuring, strategising for and supporting 35 schools (each with between 75 and 100 students), two halfway homes and a social business school across Malaysia and Myanmar.
“I grew up in Damansara Jaya with a circle of high-achieving friends, all of whom represented the school in debate and public speaking — that sort of thing. Every time we sat down together, we talked about current affairs and the gaps in addressing social problems, but there was this idea that volunteering was something you did when you had free time and extra energy,” she says. “Then you come to a point where you say, I can’t be frustrated with an unjust system if I’m not contributing in any way. I had applied for the April intake of a business degree and decided to spend the months before it started by volunteering at the school.”
Quah is candid about her early expectations of the experience, admitting that she and her fellow volunteer friends went in with a “total saviour complex”. “I thought, ‘Oh I’m going to make a difference and change lives by teaching these kids’, but then quickly realised it’s a much more complex issue,” she continues. “I remember how eager, how full of excitement, the students were to learn. They knew no English and I stayed up nights trying to learn the Hakha Chin language, but we were like chickens and ducks communicating.”
It was not until the headmaster informed her the centre would be closing around the same time she started college that the notion of privilege and its relativity really kicked in. At high school, she had sometimes envied her peers their branded attire or lavish overseas holidays, but she, who had frequently begged to be allowed to skip school and had taken a college education for granted, had opportunities these children could only dream about.
“Meeting them showed me how privileged I was in having a roof over my head, not worrying about my next meal or being able to walk out of my house safely,” Quah says, shaking her head.
“Realising there are children out there who don’t have what I would consider basic necessities … man, that was really difficult. I was so shaken by how messed up the world is. I carried so much shame and guilt at my own privilege, things that came easily to me that I did nothing to deserve, when others struggled so hard for so little. Those early years were quite dark. I always felt like I didn’t deserve goodness in a world with so much suffering. But then I reframed that and thought, what am I doing with my privilege? Instead of stewing in guilt, how could I channel it positively?”
Empowerment through education
The Chin refugee community in Malaysia was little-known in 2012. Without front-page images of boat landings or tents blazoned with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees emblem, many among the public confused them with illegal immigrants and were unaware that they lived among locals.
“We started initiating conversations on social media about the community, sharing classroom experiences or stories on the ground,” says the vivacious Quah. “Not many people realised that refugees flee their countries under threat of persecution or war. The Chin Children’s Education Centre was one of some 180 such places but there weren’t many efforts to coordinate them. We set about fundraising to keep the centre open but projects are short term by nature. To turn the situation around, we needed to think long term.”
Refuge for the Refugees was registered and officiated. Word travelled among the tight-knit community and the organisation was soon inundated with requests for assistance with setting up schools or developing syllabuses, sowing the seeds for the strategy they have in place today.
“We go into a new school with financial aid and an exit plan in mind,” Quah continues. “We help them get on their feet and put systems in place to help the school become self-sustainable — this includes supplying them with rent initially and providing the syllabuses, training and other necessary resources — and then grant them autonomy. We sit on their boards to oversee things but we give as much authority as possible back to the community. We hire the school heads and as much as 90% of the talent we need from within the refugees themselves because it’s important they hold that control. To empower them is to dignify them.”
Her efforts to uphold this value go beyond the classrooms and boardrooms to every relevant talk, meeting or roundtable discussion. As NGOs often go in with solutions that are not wholly beneficial or do not reflect the real on ground needs or situations, she tries to have a community spokesperson join her in representing them in advocacy.
“Who are we to say what they really need? They should be part of the conversation, they are the real experts and stakeholders here, and we should give them their voice,” says the 26-year-old.
Instead of forcing “standard” courses upon them, students have the opportunity to learn entrepreneurial or vocational skills; gain exposure to a tertiary education through scholarships or partnerships with affiliated universities; or are assisted in work placements. A former student, for instance, now has a fulfilling role as a case worker at a shelter for domestic violence.
It is such work, which has impacted thousands of children, that has won Quah more than two dozen honours and awards, the most prestigious of which is the Queen’s Young Leaders award in 2017. She was the sole Malaysian recipient that year, and exchanged a few words with Queen Elizabeth II as she was presented with the medal in a grand ceremony livestreamed from Buckingham Palace — the first ever live feed broadcast on The Royal Family’s Facebook account.
“When I started in aid and advocacy, I wanted to excel at it,” Quah says. “As a teenager, I battled so many insecurities that continued into my early adulthood. I remember watching friends who graduated with me joining big corporate companies with big money and benefits, and I felt so incompetent in comparison. But I think my journey in this has always been guided by what I thought was right. Refuge for the Refugees evolved organically as I matured. I used to be a fi ve-year planner: build x number of schools by a certain time and immediately change policies. But [my thinking has changed] to respond to what is happening within the refugee community. My role is to amplify their voices and give them those platforms, not hog that space. So, when the awards started coming in, they were a form of affi rmation that maybe I was on the right path after all.”
A call for compassion
Awareness about the plight of the Chin community — and refugees as a whole — has grown considerably since Refuge for the Refugees was founded, but where compassion and kindness once stirred, public sentiment seems to have shifted towards hostility and resentment. To Quah, it seemed like it happened almost overnight.
Within weeks of the imposition of the Movement Control Order in March, it was undeniable that the B40 and marginalised communities were hit hard by its economic repercussions with many daily wage earners unable to put food on the table. At first, social media exploded with offers of assistance and aid for the refugee community but the tone online appears to have undergone a seismic shift.
“I can’t say for sure, but I think it flipped when a boat carrying Rohingya refugees was intercepted off the coast of Langkawi in June [ironically, the very month World Refugee Day is celebrated] and protests erupted against extending aid during the pandemic,” says Quah. “I’m still trying to reconcile what we’re seeing today with the years of kindness and welcome that Malaysians had extended. Now, there seems to be this sentiment of protecting our own, whether it’s resources or people.”
An online post she wrote during the MCO about help for refugees and migrants was met with a barrage of hatred, with comments that ranged from accusing her of being a pengkhianat negara (national traitor) to those threatening her safety or requesting she kill herself. She was also questioned by the police over a Facebook post on the alleged mistreatment of refugees at immigration detention centres, when the Immigration Department fi led a report against her claims.
“I thought we were in a good place, especially under the previous administration, which was more open to dialogues on the subject,” she says. One example was governmental support of The Chin Up Project spearheaded by Refuge for the Refugees in reaction to UNHCR’s 2018 Chin Cessation Policy. The latter had conducted a fi eld trip to Myanmar and concluded it was safe for the refugees to be repatriated, which went against all on-the-ground feedback Quah and other activists heard.
“Where in the world did they get the idea that conditions were safe? Their fi eld trip must have had a very sanitised or selective itinerary,” says Quah. “We initiated The Chin Up Project to spread awareness on the policy, even engaging with the then-Minister of Foreign Affairs, and sent a heavily-supported petition to the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva that ultimately saw the policy reversed. I think the current antagonistic atmosphere is due to a culmination of events, from improper news reporting to a rise in xenophobia.”
Even in the darkest hour, however, hope still casts its gentle light. One ray came in the form of unexpected help: while Refuge for the Refugees was searching for logistic partners to help deliver essential items to over 1,000 families a week during the MCO, BMW reached out. “
We’re not talking community drop-off s — these are house-to-house deliveries. It is immensely tedious work that includes calling each family, loading the cars and driving from Klang to Gombak. BMW not only provided the cars for deliveries, it even had teams of volunteers join us every single weekend to help with distribution. It turned out to be a wonderful partnership,” says Quah. “At first, I couldn’t comprehend it, luxury vehicles being packed with rice and canned food, but then BMW corporate communications head Sashi Ambi said, ‘Heidy, they’re just cars.’ They put even a marginalised community like refugees first. BMW made such a difference to our programme at a crucial time. It made the journey feel much less lonely.”
Despite the various paths the organisation has taken in the eight years since its inception, Quah seems to always return to the classroom. She recently announced that she would be an associate supervisor for an Australian PhD candidate researching the link between refugee and asylum access to education and mental health and well-being. This is in addition to a new role as adjunct associate professor at a local private university where she will support its new Bachelor of Social Science programme, the first in Southeast Asia to specialise in social innovation and change.
“Education is and will always be one of the pillars of Refuge for the Refugees because when we started, my students and I weren’t far apart in age, but you could see the impact of their trauma on them. I could have been one of them. Some of them even thought I was Burmese. When they talked about their dreams of being resettled in Australia or America, they would pause and ask me, ‘Teacher, where are you going?’ I’d say, ‘I’m Malaysian, I’m staying here.’ And they would seem heartbroken on my behalf, asking, ‘Teacher, why can’t you go? Are you okay? Where is your family?’ They couldn’t understand and were upset that they had something to look forward to but I didn’t,” she laughs.
“We have come a long way, but most of this was not planned. It was never about achieving big goals in those early years, it was about doing that one thing a day that could actively make a difference to someone else. If that one day, I showed up and was kind to just one refugee family, that was enough.”
This story first appeared on Nov 2, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.