It is the end of another school day in Klang. The children grab their books, stuff them in their bags and rush down the stairs to the street. Some of the younger girls hold hands; their headscarves billowing around them as they run for the bus. Boisterous boys push each other and show off in front of their friends.
It’s the kind of scene that plays out in thousands of schools across Malaysia every day, but these children are not Malaysian. They are Rohingya refugees.
Hajah Rosma Tazilah is the Principal of the Rohingya Education Centre. Once a teacher in private and government schools, she has been at the centre since it opened in 2012. A kindly woman, dressed in a colourful baju kurung and headscarf, she is eager for her students do well.
The school currently has about 260 students. “The needs are the same,” Hajah Rosma tells me. “All children need love, care and attention.”
The Rohingya Education Centre is funded mostly by zakat money from Majlis Agama Islam Selangor. It is housed rent-free across a couple of floors in a commercial building on the outskirts of Klang. The stairwell is dark and the steps uneven, the walls a little grim, but the children’s work decorates every classroom and, at the back of the building, one of the rooms has been turned into a well-stocked library.
Inside, Noor is sitting on a tiny chair, his knees almost under his chin, a picture book open in his hands. He’s joking with his friends; holding court, almost.
The second eldest in a Rohingya family of seven children, Noor was born in Malaysia 18 years ago. As he comes over to talk, he is less cocky; more reserved.
“I like studying,”he says in Malay. “I like my teachers and I like all my friends here.”
Noor’s mother is sick so the teenager’s only plan is to look after her, but he also reveals that the family may soon be resettled to Australia where his father works in a furniture factory.
Some 33,000 of Malaysia’s registered refugees are children under the age of 18.
There were 152,830 refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Malaysia at the end of April 2015. Like many countries in Southeast Asia, Malaysia hasn’t signed the UN Convention on Refugees, so refugees are considered undocumented migrants and “illegal,”unable to work, send their children to school or make use of government health services.
Some 33,000 of those registered refugees are children under the age of 18, and just under half of those at an age where they should be going to school.
While Malaysia hasn’t signed the refugee convention, it is a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which it ratified back in 1995. The convention applies to all children regardless of nationality or immigration status, including protections for social needs, education and health.
Civil society groups, including Suhakam, have consistently pressed Malaysia to meet its commitments under the CRC. In a roundtable earlier this year, the Minister of Women, Family and Community acknowledged that it applied to all children. But policy has yet to catch up.
“Education provides a future for kids,”said Richard Towle, the UNHCR Representative in Malaysia. “Kids are kids first, and migrants or refugees second. We all have an obligation, in any society, to make sure all children are given the chance to fulfil their destiny.”
“Investment in education is a win-win. It’s a win for children because they have a sense of a future, the families will see it as one way of extricating themselves from a life of uncertainty and poverty, and educated youth will make a contribution to society in a positive way, whether that’s in Malaysia, when they go home or if they move onto a third country.”
With refugee children excluded from state-funded schools in Malaysia, the UN has worked with Malaysian NGOs, religious organisations and community groups to create a parallel education system, providing training to teachers and some funding. Today, there are 125 learning centres across Malaysia, compared with 78 five years ago. Rohingya children can be found at 31 of them.
“Kids are kids first, and migrants or refugees second.”
Most centres are housed in old apartments and shophouses or in commercial areas; discreet and hidden from view. Typically, they teach subjects from the Malaysian curriculum, the refugees’ native languages and English even though a lack of money means some schools rely on volunteers to do the teaching.
Even with these efforts, only a third of school-age refugee children are actually getting any education. For many others, the daily struggle to survive takes precedence, especially once the children become teenagers. If an opportunity to work comes along, many older children will take it. In Rohingya communities, girls are often expected to stay at home, care for their siblings and help their mother.
Hajah Rosma is disturbed that some Rohingya girls marry when they’re as young as 14 or 15 years old. She encourages the teenagers at her school to continue with their studies as long as possible, including those she has discovered have married.
“I tell them to stay,” she said. “They must learn whatever they can while they’re here.”
Mohammad arrived in Malaysia with his mother and three brothers at the beginning of the year. At the age of eight, he’s already lived through the kind of experiences that an adult would struggle to comprehend.
Mohammad’s father disappeared in 2013. His mother, Nur, was told that her husband had been killed by Buddhists in their native Rakhine, Myanmar. After a year of waiting and no confirmation about what had happened to him, their home was burned down. Along with some of their neighbours, the family fled by sea across the Bay of Bengal to Thailand.
Mohammad recalls they left their village at night in a fishing vessel. Out at sea, they boarded a big boat that had two levels and was crowded with people. A speedboat took them ashore once they got to the coast of Thailand and they then spent two months in a jungle camp as his mum tried to raise the money to pay the traffickers.
When they got to Malaysia, the family found themselves arrested by police, put before a court and locked up in Juru detention centre. It was two months before they could be registered with the UNHCR and released.
When they got to Malaysia, the family found themselves arrested by police, put before a court and locked up in Juru detention centre.
Home now is a small room in an apartment in an industrial area of Kuala Lumpur, which the family shares with an elderly Rohingya couple. Nur can’t work because she is still breast-feeding her youngest son who is not yet two. She makes traditional Rohingya sweets to sell, but the family lives largely on hand-outs and the goodwill of others.
Mohammad speaks softly, sticking to the bare facts of his family’s recent history and looking to his mum for direction. As he talks, he presses his left thumb into the fingers of this right hand. He admits the voyage made him seasick and that he was scared in the camp, but doesn’t elaborate.
“The trauma that these children go through affects them for the rest of their lives,” said Sharmila Sekaran, a lawyer who leads child advocacy group, Voice of the Children. “They have gone through the worst of everything. They have been taken out of their comfort zone. What was home is no longer home. They need security. They need certainty. They need familiarity.”
Like every other refugee or undocumented migrant, children remain vulnerable to detention. According to Suhakam, which visits Malaysia’s 12 detention centres, 1,196 children were held in immigration detention at 26 September 2014. Some of them were alone, incarcerated alongside adults.
The learning centres help to provide some of the normality that children need as they grow up. They are not just schools, but places of refuge.
Close to the centre of Klang and spread across buildings belonging to three neighbouring churches, The Elshaddai Refugee Learning Centre started providing education to refugee children in 2009, after church-goers noticed large numbers of Rohingya children begging in the area. It now has more than 400 refugee children who have landed in Malaysia from all over the world.
In the orderly classrooms, white shoes placed neatly outside the door, the teachers – some Malaysian retirees and others refugees themselves – teach in English, following the Singapore curriculum. All the kids get breakfast and lunch, as well as transport to and from school. Although parents pay RM30 a month in fees, the school is funded mainly by the churches themselves, and through private donations. The school started a “Sponsor a Child” programme earlier this year.
The Rohingya children are eager to learn English, although shy about using it. Many of their parents sell vegetables and fish in the local markets, while others work in factories. Most share their apartments with other families.
14-year-old Siti was born in Malaysia, but is Rohingya. Her mother has been bed-ridden for more than two years and requires constant care. Her father, who has three wives and four children, lost his job as a gardener when the school where he worked decided it could no longer employ a refugee. The extended family survives on the money Siti’s stepmother – her father’s third wife – makes as a cook in the Elshaddai kitchen. All the children attend classes at Elshaddai.
The Rohingya children are eager to learn English, although shy about using it.
When it comes to life beyond the learning centres, the future is still uncertain. A few local private universities have, in collaboration with UNHCR, provided places for refugee students. Since 2011, HELP has trained more than 350 refugee students on free vocational courses. In December 2014, Limkokwing signed a preliminary agreement with UNHCR to provide free tuition for 100 refugee students. However, many other colleges and universities are bound by regulations, which make it difficult to enrol refugee students.
“My dream is to become a doctor,” Siti tells me. She speaks in English and with great confidence. Her favourite subject is Science. “I want to be able to help those in need and save lives.”
But the strain of the family’s circumstances is etched on her stepmother’s face. Sarifa Ismail is 45, but old beyond her years. It’s nearly July and she is worried because she hasn’t yet paid May’s rent of RM250. An Indonesian from East Java, she’s been married to Siti’s father for 18 years and has formed a close bond with his daughter.
“Her father said Siti should leave school and look after her mother,” Sarifa explained in a break from the kitchen. “But I said no. I told him that she must carry on. I know she can succeed.”
Back in Kuala Lumpur, Mohammad and three of his brothers have also found places at a nearby refugee learning centre. Mohammad doesn’t know what he wants to do when he grows up, but his six-year-old brother, Ahmad, small and full of energy, knows exactly what he wants to be.
A big grin spreads across his face. “I want to fly an aeroplane,” he says. “I want to be a pilot!”
Names of the children have been changed.
Related post: 7 Things To Know About the Rohingya People