Latifah Volunteered with BBBB This Summer and is Now Back in Her Native HK

If you are considering volunteering in Malaysia with the Myanmar refugee school you should certainly read this detailed blog by Latifah

PART I: My Experience at the Myanmar Refugee School

My three months at the Myanmar refugee school which BBBB works with were absolutely eye-opening. Prior to that, I worked at a think tank as a public policy researcher, where I conducted research on social issues in front of a computer. I decided to volunteer at the school to obtain more first-hand experience.

Me and Ashley with kids from the Myanmar school at the playground

From our first meeting, the children were amazingly sweet. Even though they were accustomed to seeing international teachers come and go within months, they were still ready to open up and grow attached to new teachers. On my first day, their warm reception made me feel like I’d already known them for years, not hours (though I suppose in child-time that equates to years). As with the intensity of their warmth, their energy levels were also about three times that of children I worked with before, and it took a little time to adapt and cater to their vigour when planning lessons.  

One thing I regret was not properly researching on the children’s cultural backgrounds before arriving in Malaysia. While I did read up on their political situation, it would have been helpful to have known more about their community. I quickly observed the omnipresence of their church culture. The children’s community centred around the Myanmar Christian Fellowship, with church services offered several times a week. The children extended a recurrent invitation for me to join them at church on Monday evenings. They spent an hour every morning before class in devotion, where the Myanmar teachers led them in songs and prayer. Often, during classes when I asked for examples, the children would come up with Biblical references.

Reading the Holy Bible

In fact, as my name is “Latifah”, the Year 4 class coined “Pothipar” (a figure in the story of Joseph) as my nickname. As another example, when doing an exercise on acrostic poems, the Year 3’s wrote one on “Christmas”, that started with “Church is so beautiful / Hallelujah”. 

Year 3’s poem on Christmas

Teaching the kids could be tiring at times, but the fun definitely balanced it out. I loved the independence I had with planning classes. For instance, I knew the children loved singing (they burst out singing spontaneously all the time). So, when everyone (including myself) was bored with repetitive grammar drills, I set a task where we analysed song lyrics for poetical devices like rhyme and similes, which they really enjoyed.

I also noticed how the children loved to role play. For example, after a class on the Civil Rights Movement, the Year 4 students set up their own makeshift lectern and read aloud Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream Speech”. So as a fun project to train their creativity, group work and English skills, I had the students write, direct and perform their own short movies. They came up with their own storylines, characters, props and costumes. This task really allowed to students to showcase their creative talent and leadership skills. In fact, they kept pushing for me to hurry up with my part of the project (i.e. compiling the footage on my computer)!

You can watch the movies here:

Year 4’s movie:

Year 3’s movie:

I found the movies quite hilarious. In fact, on any usual day, I could expect to be entertained by the kids in some way. For example, when I tried to explain what a “sailor” was in simple English by saying “It’s someone who drives a ship”, one of the Year 3 students proceeded to say “Sheep? He drives a sheep!” and mimed riding a sheep while bleating “Mehhhh” around the classroom.  

I had a wonderful time with the kids outside the classroom as well. In particular, a previous volunteer (Teacher Lala) sponsored a beach trip to Malacca. In the lead up to the trip, the kids talked about it constantly. On the day, they were chatting and singing excitedly as we boarded the coach. The drive from KL was almost 3 hours long. After stretches of highways, on the first sighting of a beach, the kids all promptly erupted in clapping, cheering and whooping. Their pure joy was infectious all of the accompanying adults were smiling from ear to ear too. 

On the coach to Malacca

Cleaned up and tanned after playing in the sand

Another pleasant memory was taking the kids to the playground next to the school. The playground itself was in quite a state – all of the equipment was damaged, and we found the rotting corpses of a cat and a squirrel. The goalposts for the football court had been bent out of shape and the fencing full of holes and spikes. In spite of that, the kids had their own methods of having fun, and insisted the teachers join in their games. As expected, everyone had so much fun that they refused to leave.

In the playground with thanaka on our faces for sun protection

Despite the children’s innocent joy of childhood, I felt a constant melancholy undercurrent when interacting with them, because I recognised the harsh realities they faced.

Firstly, as refugees, the children and their families had been chased out of their homes due to their religion and ethnicity, as well as the poor economic conditions in Chin State. Their refugee status was on the brink of revocation, and even as refugees, their existence was parallel to mainstream citizens in Malaysia.

While most of the students lived with their families, their parents tended to work in the F&B or construction industries with long hours. While some lucky ones had involved parents who picked them up from school every day, many had absent parents. One of my students told me he never saw his parents because they slept when he left for school and would have left for work by the time he went home. Toddlers too young for nursery were left at home alone all day with just a toy for company. Their lack of interaction with adults left them stunted in development and unable to hold a conversation when they enrolled in nursery at age four. Some of the students also told me about their alcoholic, abusive parents and the prevalent premature deaths of alcoholic relatives.  

The students’ childhoods also had a ticking timer. By age 15 or so, the students would drop out and start working to support their families. Even while enrolled in school, some of the students would be absent from school for days in a row because the restaurant their mother worked at needed extra help.

The worst reality I witnessed was the racial discrimination they faced from their host country. An incident occurred in the school where a local couple accused one of the students from nursery of scratching their car that was parked outside the school. They trespassed onto school premises and attempted to take the child to the police station to “teach him a lesson”. While the teachers were trying to defuse the situation, one of the accusers grabbed the crying child and dragged him on the ground in a bid to bring him to their car. Throughout the incident, the couple spewed ethnic slurs against “Myanmar people” and how they were a “drain on the system”. We ended up filing a police report against the couple for trespassing on school premises and manhandling our student.

After a unit on the Civil Rights Movement with the Year 4 class, I set an exam question asking about their experiences with racial discrimination and some of the answers were quite disheartening:

This student was accused by a shop owner of stealing rambutan after receiving permission to pick them from a tree. The police were called and they asked for a bribe of RM50 from the student.

A man told this student that he had an unlucky day because he met someone from Myanmar.

Sometimes I wondered if the children would be better off staying in their villages in Chin State. However, they told me stories of alcoholism and drug use among children as young as eight or nine years old. They also told me of the prevalence of the rape of Chin women by men from the majority Bamar ethnic group. They explicitly told me not to visit Myanmar because it’s too dangerous for me as a woman.  

The sad reality is that they have no where they can call a safe and welcoming home. The ones who are registered with the UNHCR are awaiting the unpredictable possibility of resettlement to the USA or Australia. However, with the stigma of being refugees, their lives in these countries could not be guaranteed to improve. As short-term teachers, we can only try to equip the students with skills and an attitude that can take them as far as possible in their circumstances. And even after leaving, we have to continue to fight against the structural and institutional inequalities they face.

Saying goodbye to the Year 4’s before school ends

Children’s rights posters

A fundraising video made for Soroptimist International of Singapore Orchid:

Some pictures taken in class

PART II: Malaysia!

A contributing reason to why I chose to volunteer with BBBB was because I wanted to experience living in Malaysia for several months. Since I was there from April to July, I was able to observe the holy month of Ramadan and Hari Raya Aidilfitri.

Post-early morning Eid prayer in Johor

During Ramadan, the mosque scene was particularly active, so I went “mosque hopping” around KL. I especially loved Masjid Wilayah Persekutuan with its spacious prayer hall and beautiful Turkish architecture. Also, all mosques provided free dinners (iftars) during Ramadan. I also discovered the concept of Ramadan bazaars which would be bustling with hungry shoppers just before sunset. There were so many food choices that I learned to identify the good ones based on the length of their queues. I once queued up for half an hour to buy nasi kerabu (a herbal rice dish) and it was definitely worth it.

After Ramadan, I was lucky enough to be invited by a friend to spend Hari Raya Aidilfitri in Johor. I got to take part in the traditional Raya preparations such as making ketupat (rice dumplings) and peanut sauce from scratch. To fit with the festive atmosphere, I wore a baju kurung (the national dress of Malaysia) when visiting open houses.

Me wearing a baju kurung on the first day of Raya

Rather than visiting other parts of Malaysia or Southeast Asia, I spent most of my weekends exploring KL. As a result, I picked up some local habits, such as going to Kajang for satay and SS2 for durian. Due to the intense heat outdoors, I also adopted the mall culture (i.e. staying inside megamalls all day).

I also found the Grab culture quite amusing. The school’s location was not easily reachable by public transport, so I had to take a Grab to go anywhere. As a result, I’ve had the same friendly interrogation by different drivers countless times. They all start off by speaking to me in Malay, and when I say “Sorry I don’t understand” they ask me where I’m from, why I’m in KL (the usual guess is “You marry a Malaysian ah?”), and since I’m from Hong Kong, whether I like to watch TVB too. I once even had a driver who held an 8-month old baby in his left hand whilst driving with his right!

Overall, I had an amazing time in Malaysia and I would love to visit again soon. I want to thank Miza (and her family including one-eyed Milan) for being so hospitable during my stay in Malaysia. I’m also grateful to Dr Saradha, Auntie Noorma and Josephine for looking out for all the volunteers during our stay. And to the other volunteer teachers who were with me, Biaki, Ashley and Silvia, I hope we meet again soon!

Posted in Building Bridges Beyond Borders (Malaysia), Volunteers' Stories

Lisa reflects on her summer at SPICE in Hong Kong

Lisa was one of 5 UK volunteers from Edinburgh and London Universities and 10 HK undergraduates who helped run the SPICE summer camp this year

Preparing for climbing at Epicland

This summer I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to Hong Kong to volunteer for 7 weeks alongside 4 other UK students. I was volunteering with SPICE, a summer English programme for disadvantaged children. Looking back at my time, there are many highlights, experiences and challenges that I will always remember. Arriving in Hong Kong I was taken back by the beautiful scenery, the area we stayed in was residential but had great views. The accommodation was basic, but nice with a small kitchen and fridge we could use. The staff in the village were very helpful and the grounds were lovely, with a swimming pool and running track you could use if you wanted. There was also a big shopping mall with lots of food options and MTR station a 10 minute walk away from the which was really handy.

Billiards at the HK Country Club


We spent the first two weeks of the trip getting to know the Hong Kong interns and planning the programmes. Each class was led by two Hong Kong interns and one UK volunteer. We helped to plan some activities, as well as practice delivering them. There was also time to explore Hong Kong during these two weeks.

Before I knew it, I was in the first of three schools taking a class, along with two Hong Kong interns. For each programme we taught a class of between 12 and 16 children aged 10-13, each programme lasting 7 days. The days were not like a traditional school day but consisted of fun activities to encourage the students to speak English through activities including games, crafts and sports.

A definite highlight for the kids (and adults!), were the outings to Epicland and Hong Kong Country Club, as children were able to have fun and try new activities, they otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to.

Science experiments or just fun?

Some classes were more challenging than others, with children ranging from having no English to being more able speakers. However, it was very rewarding to have a child progress from having little confidence to speak English at the start of the week, to chatting in English by the end of the week. Some children even taught us a bit of Cantonese!

Designing their own T shirts

The trip was a great way to experience life in Hong Kong and find out more about education, culture and the history of Hong Kong, compared to just spending a short holiday in tourist areas. Although this summer was not without its challenges, with Hong Kong facing its own political challenges, it did not ever feel unsafe. With the help of the locals we were able to keep ourselves up to date with what was taking place, it was a fascinating time and interesting to gain different perspectives on what was taking place. Overall, I would recommend SPICE programme to anyone who has the chance as it was an exciting and worthwhile summer!

Sports can be relaxing even in the summer heat!
Posted in SPICE Programme (Hong Kong), Volunteers' Stories Tagged with:

The SPICE English Programme for disadvantaged children in Hong Kong completed its fifth year this summer

Mexican dancing!

The programme brought together 10 Hong Kong undergraduates and 5 UK undergraduates to run three 7-day fun English camps for a total of 240 children.

Apart from competitions, activities and games in the classrooms they all spent the day at the Hong Kong Country Club, one of HK’s most exclusive members clubs as well as going to EpicLand where they took on some challenging activities.

Below are some pictures.

If you are interested in helping to run the camp in 2020 and are still an undergraduate, or graduated within the past 2 years, get in touch!

Posted in SPICE Programme (Hong Kong), Uncategorised

Neil is now back in Edinburgh after his summer in Hong Kong

He reflects on the programme and has also prepared the short video below

The SPICE English programme makes so much difference to approximately 200 children over the 3 7-day long programmes which run through the summer, and it makes an enormous difference to the interns and volunteers involved too.

It is a great opportunity to gain an insight into the culture of Hong Kong, the education system and the people who call Hong Kong home. Working with students from backgrounds where it is possible that life is that bit harder for them and their families, you get to understand and appreciate how life is different for all of us and how giving your time and enthusiasm can make such a positive and lasting effect on the lives of others. In return, the memories, experience and knowledge which you will take home with you will be priceless and last a lifetime.

(Neil is studying for his MA in Primary Education at The University of Edinburgh)

Posted in SPICE Programme (Hong Kong), Volunteers' Stories

Harry and Rob are cycling across the world to raise money for a solar power project at Lotus Children’s Centre.

(Ireland to China via Mongolia so far. 18,000 kilometers and counting.)

Below is Harry’s report of their stopover at Lotus itself last month

Learn more about their amazing journey:

Press DONATE button at the end of this blog to make a contribution to this important project

We think its important to give you our loyal following and supporters a genuine warts-and-all appraisal of Lotus. A rose-tinted ‘Live Aid-esque’ money magnet advert will not give you the understanding of the real issues and dynamics at Lotus. These workings are sometimes bursting with love, at other points riven with pain, but for the largest part are filled with the sheer mundanities and profundities of growing up.

In Summer time and in some ways, the 100 abandoned or orphaned children in Lotus’ care enjoy a childhood that Western parents would pay thousands for, sending their kids to Waldorf schools or fancy Summer camps. The natural setting in an idyllic river valley is the start. Mountains tower to one side, this presented a pre-breakfast hiking challenge, where we were guided up by a pair of 10 year-olds and the Center’s predominant dog, Tina. Delicious wild berries were foraged on the slopes, and enjoyed on the summit’s panorama looking over UB in the distance. On the other side, the Center is flanked by a river breaking into miniature deltas and meadows. We led one sunny afternoon expedition up to the river’s spring, the freezing spring-water is long thought to have healing properties, and whilst our party slurped from our hands, a dozen cars stopped there to fill up too.  
In the compound itself, a few horses graze peacefully, whilst a clutch of hens can be more raucous,  dogs have been adopted and watch for intruders on bicycles. From the toddlers in the nursery to the teenagers on the sports court, hours of the day are spent playing outside. Screens are noticeably absent, just a few of the older sponsored children may have a mobile phone, but the tactile world dominates the digital one. The food is plain but healthy, we had more vegetables here than the rest of our time in Mongolia combined. The tap water is the same delicious spring-water as described above. The kids learn baking in a professionally out-kitted kitchen, there is a fully-tooled wood and metal workshop, and there is an arts and craft center with some activity ongoing most days. But more significant than all this, as many parents will testify, the kids have constant access to a near infinite pool of playmates. 
In these respects and from these angles, Lotus may seem a like a holiday camp, and you may question if more money or support is really needed. But this is the Center at its most carefree, in the beautiful summer months when kids can play outdoors, and the season when almost all of volunteers come to help and enrich the place in a whirl of group activities. However, while smiling volunteers come and go with the breeze, critical permanent staff are outnumbered and overstretched. The Centre’s founder, Didi, counts some  veteran staff of over 15 years, but staff churn is high where the stress and strain of the job can’t be well compensated. Burn-out can be contagious, and constant turnover doesn’t provide the kids with stability in key relationships. Moreover, the bitter cruelty of the winters puts an end to much of the outdoor idyll, and frustrations can boil over as fingers freeze in these harsher months.
Harry getting a quick perm in the Lotus Salon
Living in a true community, rather than as the dependents in a traditional family unit means that the kids are incredibly self-sufficient. During our stay the cook took 5 days off after a non-stop fortnight with extra volunteer groups. And so, cooking and cleaning was then done by rota through houses, split into age and sexes. So a house of 6 girls between from 9-13 will be fully and successfully responsible for cooking for 80 people, and 6 boys around age 8 will do all the kitchen cleaning. Alternatively, one of the dogs was wounded badly in a fight, few of the older kids could quietened him down, and then removed dozens of maggots from inside the canine’s head and disinfected the wound. We also witnessed a group of young teenagers bake an industrial quantity of bread in several varieties, enough to feed the whole center for 3-4 days.
In familial normality all of these undertakings would likely be performed or at least marshalled by a parent and all on a far smaller scale, here mass cooperative tasks are performed with minimal fuss, we were left feeling like skivers despite our best efforts. The mass teamwork and collaboration is astounding, be it in the kitchen, bakery, or mass choreographing birthday celebrations. I feel that many of these kids’ social and team-working abilities and ‘EQ’ would be way above average. Moreover, I suspect their is English is better than the average Mongolian child too, namely because of the number and nature of volunteers they have through.
Communal dance sessions are a daily occurrence 
The above paints a youthful eutopia, but in reality it was no contrived or all-smiling model of harmony. Older kids of 7-8 often seemed vindictive or sometimes outright cruel to the toddlers: they might remove their toys, slap them on the head, or even playfully lock them up en masse in a mini ger. Currently, self policing is the quick fix, where the most mature ‘sisters’ (+15 y/o’s) protect the youngest from the 8-10 y/o terrors. . But more staff and supervision would help limit this natural ‘law of the jungle’, like my own mother did in sheltering Tom, my own younger brother, from my vindictive abuses. Whilst the staff being in short supply maybe helps the kids accelerate to a form of independence and self-reliance, this is perhaps at the expense of encouraging self reflection or other forms of subtle nurturing.
A mountain view of the Lotus Centre
Mahananda is a serial volunteer at Lotus, as well as running auto engineering workshops he helps the children in self-knowledge and connecting more positively to themselves and others. The origins of the center lie with Didi and her path of compassion which is rooted in the same ground as Mahananda – they were both disciples in the same spiritual order. He is transplanting the sustainability of his life in an Australian commune to Lotus: creating buildings made from sandbags and recycled bottles and tires, starting off a permaculture effort, and getting the circular notion of wast products spinning there. His work here is really aligned with our solar project and a fertile conversation grows out of this.
He explained how this is more to alter the children’s mentality as it is to alter their living conditions. The emphasis is to get the children to understand that what they need is sometimes already in their direct environment if used in the right way, to pull the children and staff from a reliance on external aid to a cycle of sustainability where their needs are met on the land about them, the sunlight above them, and through the in-house initiatives that will grow and create value for them. This lesson and mentality applies as much of not more to the inner existence as the outer one also being cultivated. 15-20 years ago in Mongolia, nomadic life necessitated circular living and people practiced the skills and mentality for that mode of living. Since then the excesses of waste capitalism have rushed in and broken that virtue, even in the relative haven of Lotus. The most fertile and powerful place to reinvigorate that sustainability is in the minds of children.
Arts and crafts 
On the day of departure, we had breakfast in Didi’s cabin up on the hill. After two decades of living in a Ger (yurt) onside and despite protestations, a donor built her a small house. Didi drew the line at running water, saying the piping was too expensive given the other needs of the Center. The charming vegan breakfast of muesli and smoothie sided with salted cucumber toast could have been served up in one of the trendiest vegan brunch spots in Amsterdam. 
I couldn’t wait to push past the pleasantries and get into Didi’s arc of experience, ‘it started with lunch for one kid, then his friend, then a few more, and then before you know there are 120 of them.’ Help and love isn’t measured and metered out with Didi or Lotus, but flows in a torrent from a deep point of the heart. 
She explained how traditionally there is no culture of philanthropy in Mongolia, at the very start Didi found it difficult to explain to neighbours why she was helping the street kids. They could not easily comprehend why she would want to help ‘bad kids without parents’, there just wasn’t a category for her actions. Moreover, government authorities and regulation in constant flux have proved a regular thorn in the side for Lotus. Each 2-year government lifespan has a mentality of ‘get in, get rich, get out’. Every cycle entails the wholesale replacement of official posts with the new family, friends and ‘favour creditors’, all this leads to burdensome changes in regulation for Lotus to comply with.
The densely populated ‘Ger’ district in Ulaanbaatar
When pried hard on the real obstacles she is facing she was eventually forthcoming: there is a lack of male role models at Lotus, especially Mongolian speaking ones. The Center’s location is around an hour outside the city centre, more in traffic, this is great for air and life quality for the kids, but again doesn’t help in staff retention. Donations are not always the most sensible objects, which can lead to the hoarding impractical and expensive divisive toys, whilst money lacks for heating and food.  

There are donor Scholarships for a few kids to go to the posh English school, but there are concerns an observed up-swell in the arrogance and cheekiness of the beneficiaries, probably derived from their more privileged peers.
The focus is now moving away from such western-branded schooling, where the school itself can be conceited and western culture and ideas are pedestalled without critique or circumspection. She is looking to start up again the school at Lotus, and balance the acquisition of modern skills with the absorption of Mongolian culture and the development of good character traits. A powerful but unorthodox donation would be to sponsor an extra staff member over a scholarship for  just one child. This is suggested as to where the money could best go, whilst maintaining a personal nature to the gift. 
In the end the most fundamental fact is that more money for basic operations is needed, this comes from increasing the flow of cash donations, or being able to cut the running costs of the orphanage. With vegetable gardens and burgeoning beehives, they are working toward food independence, heating and energy is the area that the Rising Sun Cycle is acting upon. Plain money is not always the ‘nicest’ gift to give for the donor, but it is often the most useful when through long experience the charity really knows how to best spend it.
No child is singly good or bad, just as no family or Center can be either. The sheer numbers of people and of relationships at Lotus brought intense insight into this law of variety. Sometimes when one thinks of orphaned or abandoned children, the mind emphasises the ‘orphaned and abandoned’ part, rather than the ‘children’ –  there is an assumption that the kids must be different in a myriad of ways. Though really the same core elements of childhood ring out: laughter and tears, cruelty and grace, home and community and yet missing and yearning. How this normality of childhood shines through in potentially catastrophic conditions is the real testament to the beautiful work at Lotus, and why we want to work so hard for its continuation and ever-improvement.

This journey in its course has meant many things to us, but we learnt in this short stay that Lotus provides the anchor of meaning. An anchor holding the heart in place and the mind true for when the legs grow weary, a place and a community that grounds this mad trip in meaningful reality.

If you wish to donate to this important project please press the button below which will take you to their Virgin Giving site. (Just Volunteers does not take donations.)


  • 18,000km cycled of 22,000km
  • 70% raised of £22k goal

Posted in Lotus Children’s Centre (Mongolia), Uncategorised

Priya Finishes Her Assignment in KL

Priya, studying dentistry in the UK, has just completed her assignment at the refugee school in Kuala Lumpur

Priya running a small class

“Teaching at [the refugee school] in Kuala Lumpur has been one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences that I have had.

I spent the last few weeks teaching English, Maths and Science to years 1 and 2 at the Myanmar Refugee school and it was definitely an experience to say the least! Looking back, my first day was quite overwhelming as we were thrown straight into it. Feeling like fish out of water, I had to quickly scramble up topics and fun activities for the children to keep them engaged whilst learning at the same time.

Although I had taught before, it was difficult at first to find my feet as the children were all at different levels and communication was hard at times due to language barriers. But the teachers and students were very welcoming, patient and were happy to give you and each other a helping hand when in need. We were given a loose curriculum to follow and it was up to us to plan our own lessons and tailor it to the level of each individual student. This allowed me the opportunity to get creative with my lesson plans.

The kids in the school have definitely captured a piece of my heart. Their personalities and artistic talent has continuously amazed me.They were always full of energy and there was never a dull moment in class. I would be lying if I said I did not have a 2 hour nap everyday after school. The children’s’ enthusiasm for learning is astounding and they were always eager to learn new topics and develop new skills no matter how challenging it was. Seeing the joy in them just showed how grateful and appreciative they were for their school and education.

During my time, I worked alongside 3 other volunteers and we all bonded very quickly through shared experiences of our struggles and ups and downs. Our days would start at 10:00am and end at 3:30pm with an hour lunch break. I got to experience a variety of traditional Myanmar food which was provided for lunch and there were definitely some tingling lips and burnt tongues from the hidden chilies in the dishes.

Priya, back right, with other volunteers (anti-clockwise) Ashley, Latifah, Amirah

We also volunteered at a local juvenile detention centre every Friday afternoon. Here we taught around 15 individuals English, which would allow them to slowly build their confidence in the language and themselves. This was very different to teaching at the refugee school, but just as rewarding. By the end of the my time there I could definitely see that their confidence had grown and that they were slowly coming out of their shells. 

Volunteering for the “Building Bridges Beyond Borders” programme in KL has opened my eyes to how I have taken for granted basic things in life, like a sense of belonging and some certainty of my future. From this experience, I have definitely learned to think on my feet, to be patient and to step up and put others ahead of ourselves.

Priya with some of the children she has become so fond of

Though my stay was short, the generosity, hope and love from the community and people is one that I will never forget. I would without a doubt volunteer here again and would encourage anyone thinking about volunteering here to apply. The experience you will gain from this programme is really fulfilling and one that you will cherish when you look back in time.”

Posted in Building Bridges Beyond Borders (Malaysia), Volunteers' Stories

Biaki Thinks Back Fondly on her Two Months in Malaysia

Biaki, from India, just concluded her volunteering assignment in Kuala Lumpur, which she took up after finishing her Masters at Kings College, London

I spent two months volunteering at a school in Kuala Lumpur and I can say that the experience I had will remain unrivalled to any other for a very long time. My short yet memorable time spent teaching at MRCLC taught me things about myself and life in general which one cannot learn within the four walls of a classroom. The experience tested me in innumerable ways for which I will be forever grateful. I would like to extend my sincere appreciation to Just Volunteers for accepting me to the program and allowing me to have this opportunity of a lifetime.

The children relaxing with Biaki after class

Looking back to my time spent in Kuala Lumpur from the very first day to the very last, the first thing that comes to mind is warm hospitality. Everyone associated with the school played an instrumental role in making the experience as memorable as possible. Miza Rashid, the volunteer coordinator, played a major role in making my stay as pleasant as possible. From picking me up at the airport to inviting us to her home for the weekends, she readily welcomed me with open arms and a warm smile. Dr. Saradha and Raja Noorma from Soroptimist International were also very welcoming and provided invaluable insight to the culture and lifestyle of the place. One could always have a nice chat with James Wong, the school’s founder, about any and every topic under the sky, and it was undeniable that the kids loved his presence whenever he came around to the school. Speaking of people who made my stay at the school so pleasant, I cannot leave out the other volunteers I worked and spent time with. For the first two weeks, I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of a volunteer from Scotland who taught me the ropes of everything there was to know about the school and neighbourhood. After his departure, I was joined by a volunteer from Hong Kong who was also a delight to live and work with. The bond shared with the people I met through this program is special as the circumstances under which we met are in itself special.

I have nothing but fond memories of the teachers and students at MRCLC. I taught years 2, 3 and 4 but the other kids also left their own unforgettable imprints. Though not a huge establishment, the kids make up for it through their amazing characters and personalities. Although a day at the school could wear you out at times, especially on a hot day, the bright smiles on their faces more than make up for it when they wave you goodbye (which they never fail to do) after a day’s work. Full of energy which never seems to diminish, they instantly welcome you with open warms. Never forgetting to include you in their games during break time, it was always fun to play old childhood games with them and teaching them new ones. Some liked to play during break while others liked to read storybooks, draw or colour. Little by little, one is able to paint a picture of each student’s personality which were all so diverse. Despite their circumstance, they will always come up to you to offer sweets or snacks that they had brought to school. Their love and acceptance will amaze you. They also love giving you little gifts of their drawings which have now become some of the most cherished gifts I’ve received in my life.

Teaching at the school itself can be a challenge if it is your first time but one gradually learns the ins and outs through the help of the other teachers, volunteers and the students themselves. For my first teaching experience, I couldn’t have possibly asked for a better environment. Making a lesson plan might come across as tedious work after a tiring day at work but the end result is always so rewarding. I learned a lot when it came to making the exam papers for Mathematics and Geography as well. Lunch is provided at the school and the volunteers are provided with a monthly allowance which more than covers for outings in the city. Though I was brought up in the sweltering heat of Delhi, I still cannot get used to the heat. As a result, I

did not travel much because of the hot climate. However, one should always have an umbrella ready when you go out because when it rains, it pours.

Although I spent only two months volunteering at MRCLC, the experience that I got from it will last for a lifetime. Not only do you get to have an amazing time but you’re also making a difference in the lives of the students who deserve nothing more than love in this world. If the least we can do for the kids is providing some sort of quality knowledge, then I would urge others to do the same. I was very fortunate that my last day in Malaysia coincided with the school trip to the city and beach of Malacca. The entire day was spent with bright smiles and laughter, and I couldn’t have asked for a lovelier ending to my short stay in Malaysia.

A special day at the beach with the whole school

Editor’s Note: Due to visa issues Biaki stayed for a shorter period than most volunteers in Kuala Lumpur – The usual minimum is 3 months.

Posted in Building Bridges Beyond Borders (Malaysia), Volunteers' Stories

Ruby Recounts Some of the Joys and Unexpected Events of Her First Week at Lotus

Ruby is taking a break from her acting career in the UK to help with running the summer camp in Mongolia this summer. These are some of her first impressions.

I arrived on Children’s Day, a happy accident due to changed train timetables, and it couldn’t have been a more special introduction to Mongolia and to Lotus. The children performed a concert with loads of traditional Mongolian dancing, a sprinkling of hip hop and even a bit of ballroom from the littlest movers. I didn’t get a single picture or video as I had a gorgeous pudding of a baby plonked in my arms as soon as I arrived and he was interchanged for several other gorgeous puddings as the day went on. I was so impressed by the kids’ enthusiasm to perform and the unspoken agreement that everybody would participate in some way, even if just for the final number and a bow – I didn’t spot much of the surly embarrassment I see in some teenagers in the UK!

The family atmosphere was palpable as we made our way up to the ceremonial ger on the hill for a special celebratory feast. I was impressed by the co-operation I witnessed from all the children; everybody got stuck in to help serve the incredible spread put on by our beautiful chef, babies were passed around like presents so somebody else had hands free for another task, and even the tiny toddlers waited patiently until every last person was seated and we’d given thanks for our meal before tucking in to the food waiting in front of them. Everyone dipped in and out of singing a yogic chant as the food was being dished out, a calm lull that underscored the busy action and gave a sense of the deep togetherness of the group. Some friends and supporters of Lotus arrived to give out presents for Children’s Day, as the kids spilled out to play and enjoy their sugary spoils. I was given a tour of the grounds, introduced to the horses and new puppies, and enjoyed my first cuddle sesh with 4 month old Baatam Tugs (the youngest addition to the Lotus family). I left Lotus with a big, full heart, squeezed in the boot of someone’s car along with a massive dog and approximately 43 children to travel the bumpy road back into town, driving through a shallow river and waving to cows wandering through petrol stations on route. Welcome to Mongolia.

I’ve been out at Gachuurt for almost 2 weeks now, and I’m settling in well to the Mongolian way of life and to my home for the next wee while. It’s a treat to open the door to your ger in the morning and be welcomed with the sight of the green mountains around you, the blue sky above you and a small person waving and shouting your name across the field. The kids are class – really switched on, funny, helpful, adventurous, playfully crafty, bold – and I’m witnessing a maturity and strength beyond their years in lots of them. I do have to be very careful who I trust to teach me Mongolian, though…

So far it’s been a big project to get the gers cleaned out and ready to welcome the larger volunteer groups, but we’re making progress and should be good to go for Monday when the first group arrives from Hong Kong. Chef was unwell for the first week of my stay so I was put to work in the kitchen (the bulk of my Mongolian vocabulary so far is root veg), but luckily for the children and me she is back and I’ve returned to my happy place, washing the dishes.  I’m looking forward to getting stuck in with more activities with the kids, as the summer holiday boredom is already setting in. Tomorrow I’m attempting the first dance class, must update the playlist as I’ve been repeatedly shamed for not knowing the latest rap artists and I can’t bear being any more uncool. The horses have run off again but some of the boys were away to retrieve them this morning so hopefully I’ll be getting my first horse riding lesson soon!

Eris has been an absolute superstar and endlessly helpful.

I’ll endeavour to take more photos and videos of what we get up to and keep in touch about the volunteering experience overall. Attached are a few of the snaps so far. Thank you for everything you’ve done to get me here, and for running your organisation with such a great blend of efficiency and passion – I’m very grateful for the opportunity. 

Posted in Lotus Children’s Centre (Mongolia)

Jamie Returns to the UK After 3 Life-Changing Months at the Refugee School

In three months of volunteering, I lived and developed enough for a lifetime. My time spent teaching at [ The Myanmar Refugee School] on weekdays and travelling Malaysia during the weekend created an inexpressible change in my character, demeanour and outlook, for which I am immensely grateful to Just Volunteers for facilitating.

The Myanmar [ Refugee school] itself is a small school, but it is overflowing with the enthusiasm of the students and the commitment of the teachers (themselves also from Myanmar) and the average school day always involves as much fun and laughter as it does education, frequently through an entertaining combination of all three! The energy of the students is often difficult to keep up with, regardless of the consumption of countless coffees, but their excitement is contagious and ensures classes are powered along in the best spirit of boisterous education. But volunteers must make sure they are well rested because the kids are inclusive and always make sure the teacher is involved in the games!

This inclusivity and community ethos was a poignant feature of my entire experience in Malaysia. The students, though having comparatively little themselves, are among the most generous people you could hope to meet, sharing toys and snacks with each other and with volunteers. Volunteering here instilis this sense of society in the pleasantest way and makes the school day feel more like a family reunion than a job.

Nothing like teaching to really help you learn!

Outside of the school’s walls, those associated with the school continue this caring demeanour. Volunteer coordinator Miza Rashid and Soroptimist International administrators Dr Saradha Narayanan and Raja Noorma Raja Othman provided a constant source of careful instruction for teaching and living in Malaysia, as well as a supply of great company and camaraderie to the point you could believe yourselves to have been friends for years. And the school’s founder James Wong, affectionately known to students and staff alike as “Uncle Jim”, is perhaps the best guide of local culture and cuisine you could ever hope to meet. But he is also one of the most interesting and caring people I have ever had the privilege of knowing, and his anecdotes over Chinese noodles or Indian curries and marsala tea were always a source of wonder and inspiration. Indeed, all of the people I met during my time volunteering have left their own unique imprint on my heart and improved my character in one facet or another; making me braver, more receptive to the needs of others, more adaptable and resilient, and more appreciative of what I have.

These changes were wrought not without some difficulties. Having never lived abroad, and having never been anywhere on the Asian continent before, I initially struggled to settle. However, this was not because of the locale, for the neighbourhood in which volunteer accommodation and the school are situated is fantastic, in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur that feels like a town in itself with amazing, varied and cheap places to eat and everything you could need within a short walk. I found it difficult to settle because I was alone in the spacious accommodation, a state of living I know to be unusual for the voluntary programme as there are usually multiple volunteers living there at any one time. But I was fortunate for my final two weeks to live with a volunteer from India. Knowing how well we got along, I can say with certainty that the volunteering and accommodation, as well as the company of those associated with the school, are exceptional conditions for making fast friends with the kinds of people you might not readily encounter in other work or education.

The project provides a small monthly allowance that goes a long way to help with trips into the city and buying dinner (the flat has a kettle, microwave and fridge, but for a full meal you should visit one of the nearby cheap eateries for delicious Malaysian, Chinese, Indian or Western food) and the school provides a lunch every day. So if you want to make the most of living in beautiful Malaysia, this keeps your bank account relatively untapped and free for travel expenses at the weekends! Though young travellers are generally more familiar with the likes of Thailand, Vietnam and Laos in South East Asia, I found Malaysia to be equipped with the same sort of natural beauty as the other countries, and replete with its own cultural charm. It boasts rainforests and jungles, expansive national parks bustling with captivating flora and fauna, white beaches and limestone cliffs, coral reefs and paradise islands. The wondrous steel and glass city of Kuala Lumpur itself is just a fifteen minute taxi or rail ride away, and the metropolis of Singapore is within easy reach, everything on the Peninsula Malaysia being well-connected by bus routes (and the buses in Malaysia! My gosh! They are the most comfortable form of transport I have ever been on!). And a trip to Malaysian Borneo, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Indonesia only takes a quick flight, should you have time during a school holiday.

My experience volunteering at MRCLC is one that I would gladly repeat again and again, and had I known before my trip how formative and positively altering my time there would be, I would not have had a second thought in applying or booking my flights. So if you want to make a difference in the lives of so many people, as well as have a fantastic difference made in your own, you should not hesitate in applying to this incredible, life-changing programme!

Posted in Building Bridges Beyond Borders (Malaysia), Projects

Amos, who is studying engineering at the University of Edinburgh, joined the SPICE programme in HK last summer. He relates his experiences.

What began as a mere ephemeral thought, became reality as I begun packing my bags for this two-month long adventure in Hong Kong. An adventure towards self-discovery, impacting lives and building life-long friendships with a unique underpinning experience. This programme was of course not without its uncertainties. Aspects such as living conditions, budgeting, and how the SPICE programme was going to unfold frequently eased its way into my thoughts.

To begin, I was humbly impressed with the accommodation provided for us, volunteers. Living conditions were far better than expected and more than what we really required (it even came with a swimming pool!).The friendly staff at the Wu Kai Sha Village who were willing to help us with our varying needs, and the hospitality showered upon us was undoubtedly the cherry on top of the whole living experience. Budgeting, on the other hand was quite a challenge. For someone who loves going out of the way for good food, being in Hong Kong was definitely the right choice for my belly, but not for my wallet. The variety of top end local cuisine could be found in almost every nook and cranny of the city. If you were to skip the food adventures, and choose to dine modestly (or cook), a humble budget would be more than enough to get you through. Furthermore, a decent allowance was provided together with food and transport cost covered on teaching days. What many of us did during the programme was to purchase groceries from a nearby supermarket and cooking back in the apartment. The apartment was well fitted and equipped with a kitchen, and a living room which had a decent ready supply of basic necessities.

SPICE officially started for the UK based volunteers with a two-week preparation period prior to the actual programme. This two weeks was meant to get us up to speed with what the HK interns had covered so far, and to allow us to work together as a whole and within our individual classes. This served as platform to both contribute to the current framework of things and allowed us to execute our activities in front of other teachers to build confidence and gain feedback. This pulled the different elements of the programme together – allowing it make sense and ensured  we did not digress from the objectives. Two weeks, however, was quite a lot of time for the UK based volunteers. We therefore took this opportunity to explore more of Hong Kong’s nature and checked off various famous landmarks whenever the day ended early for us.

During the execution of the programme, many students came with the notion that SPICE was an additional summer class they had to attend. From a kid’s perspective, this is obviously not great. However, I believe great emphasis was placed in ensuring that the programme was exactly not that. With good confidence, I dare claim that many students were surprised at the kind of fun that could actually develop in a classroom, this was at the expense of them being encouraged and pushed to communicate in English. During the first day of the programme, we teachers always made a point to remind the class that making mistakes is alright and that none of us were here to look-down, but rather to help. These hopefully were words of comfort to the students that would cement the notion of trying and moving out of their comfort zone. Without a doubt, by the end of SPICE, many students were unwilling for the programme to end and to part ways. As much as I would say that it was attributed to the way the programme was planned, I dare say that it was more so due to the teacher-student relationship formed. The intentional relationship each teacher wanted with the student, to go beyond a mere one-sided affair.

Lastly, what made this whole programme a success was the people. The coordinators, the HK Interns, and down to the UK based volunteers. It was the common knowledge that whatever we did, whether small or big, we were doing for the students. This influenced the way we interacted and fostered a tight community with a clear goal. SPICE was a great experience, not just for the students, but for the volunteers as well.

Posted in SPICE Programme (Hong Kong), Volunteers' Stories