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.
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: https://www.facebook.com/latifahsat/videos/10216101728397266/
Year 3’s movie: https://www.facebook.com/latifahsat/videos/10216103577443491/
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: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1q-mWZn6-W2OsexwXzmW50r5TrfPPYTcH/view?usp=sharing
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!