Tzu Chi relief project for refugees’children in Malaysia with UNHCR

The Buddhist Channel, Jan 18, 2008

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- Funded by the US Embassy in Malaysia, and with the joint efforts from Tzu Chi, UNHCR and refugee communities, four "UNHCR Tzu Chi Education Centres" for refugees' children were officially opened in early January 2008, after months of preparation. A total of 178 students enrolled at the centres.

Being the eldest child in her family, 11-year old Shaidah binti Abdullah is a great help to her parents. Her chores include cooking for the family, taking care of her siblings or helping her father to collect scraps for sale. Each morning, upon seeing a school bus with school-going children of her age coming round her house, Shaidah would tell her mother, "I want to go to school too."

Having had a few years of education herself, the mother, Fatimah binti Samad, knows the importance of education. In fact, she has been looking for a government school to accept her children but was unsuccessful due to her refugee status. Left with no alternative, Fatimah resorted to home-study based on what she had learnt in Myanmar, and the Malay and English languages that she has learnt in Malaysia for the past 15 years. Shaidah's father had even sent Shaidah for tuition class at one time, but that lasted only for three months due to his unstable income.

Going to school for the refugees' children is a difficult task and Shaidah is a good example reflecting the dire situation faced by these children.

Preparation work for the CLNP

Since the 90s, many Myanmar refugees started to settle down in Malaysia and the majority of them are Muslims from the Rohingya ethnic group, as well as Myanmar Muslim ethnic group. According to UNHCR's 2006 record, there were 46,356 refugees registered in Malaysia and out of this, about 9,295 were children. Out of the 6,200 children who reached the school-going age, 49% are from the Rohingya and Myanmar Muslim ethnic groups. As the number is large, their chances of being accepted by a third country are relatively low. Besides this, the Malaysian government schools do not provide education for the refugees' children. It is therefore difficult for these children to obtain a decent education.

Education is essential for the children as it enables them to learn a skill and be better integrated into the local society. On 19 September 2007, United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Tzu Chi Kuala Lumpur branch discussed the implementation of Community-based Literacy & Numeracy Program(CLNP) for the refugees' children. Sia Thiam Eng from Tzu Chi is in charge of this project as the Project Coordinating Personnel. He indicated that the objective of this programme is to ensure that the children are able to read and write, learn basic calculations and to understand several languages, thereby enabling them to survive in society.

Brittocia Franklin, representative of UNHCR, indicated that since 10 October 2004, Tzu Chi and UNHCR has been collaborating on a few projects. For the past three years, Tzu Chi has been providing monthly medical outreach and education projects at Selayang. This had enabled Tzu Chi to understand the needs of the refugees. Tzu Chi's ability in mobilizing its volunteers and its effective implementation of abovementioned projects, has given UNHCR the confidence to cooperate with Tzu Chi in further projects. The CLNP was funded by the US Embassy in Malaysia and is jointly implemented by Tzu Chi, UNHCR with the involvement of the refugee communities. The programme involved the largest funding in the history of UNHCR Malaysia.

Based on information provided by UNHCR, Tzu Chi and UNHCR have researched on nine refugee communities in Klang Valley and Kuala Lumpur since October 2007, in order to understand their needs. At the planning stage, Tzu Chi suggested a few locations for the centres and invited the refugee communities to bear some of the expenses for utilities. Out of six centres planned, three are located in the upper floor of shoplots, one at the local community centre and two more locations are yet to be determined.

Official opening of "UNHCR Tzu Chi Education Centre"

Although the centres are not as spacious as a normal school, Tzu Chi volunteers endeavoured to provide a comfortable and conducive place for the children to study. As such, they helped to repair and repaint the venues, as well as, made sure there was enough lighting.

The centres were decorated with colourful balloons, ribbons and cartoon characters, as well as, Jing Si Aphorisms in Bahasa Malaysia. In addition, Tzu Chi and UNHCR have selected ten teachers from the refugee community to attend a 4-day course at an education training centre in Kuala Lumpur. The course included English and Malay languages, Mathematics and Science subjects, and the training was conducted by its Principal, Ms. Petrina Satvinder.

Tzu Chi volunteers also prepared for the children school bags, stationeries, water bottles, handkerchiefs and so on. Sia Thiam Eng mentioned that: "Tzu Chi's educational principle emphasizes on the learning of propriety and humanitarian values so that the children can be role models in future."

After months of preparation, four "UNHCR Tzu Chi Education Centres" set up in the Ampang area were officially named on 30 December 2007 and 6 January 2008 respectively. A total of 178 students started class on 3 and 8 January subsequently.

Orientation Day and Opening Day

Two sessions of orientation were arranged. Parents accompanied their children to the centres. Some came with their whole family and others even took leave to participate in these events.

Members of Tzu Chi Teachers' Association introduced a lively group entertainment for the newly-enrolled children. Some of the students expressed their joys for being able to study; and some parents indicated that: "My child woke up at 6 am to get ready. They kept asking when they can go to school?"

Echo Chien, CEO of Tzu Chi Kuala Lumpur, handed over schoolbags to the children. The children were seen putting their schoolbags on their backs immediately and would not let go.

One of the community leaders said in his speech at the opening ceremony that even though he has been in Malaysia for the past 18 years, he is still unable to read and write. As such, this was indeed a golden opportunity for the children to learn proper education, and he hoped the children will treasure this opportunity and attend class diligently.

At the opening of the education centre in Kampung Taski Permai, Brittocia Frankhia, representative of UNHCR, asked the children, whom she said were deprived of education for a long time, to read out the Jing Si Aphorisms (in Malay Language) on the wall. She added that she has confidence with Tzu Chi's assistance in ensuring the quality of teachers and that the syllabi taught are according to normal school curriculum. As such, the parents can rest easy and the children should have no excuse in missing any class.

Sister Echo Chien also said that the hope of children lies in education. Seeing their children having the opportunity to study is a dream come true for every parent. She hoped that the children are able to learn good moral values and living skills so that they can contribute back to society and help other needy people when they have grown up.

Education without barrier

With the centres located in the community, getting education becomes less of a barrier. On 3 January, Shaidah finally attended school at the Taman Teratai education centre. Fatimah said that since receiving the schoolbag, Shaidah has never stopped touching it and is unable to let it go. Although the family is short of two helpers in the family now that both Shaidah and her sister go to school together, they will bear the difficult times for the children's education.

"We cannot give much to our children. When they grow up and we are no longer around, they will be able to survive in society with a skill. That is the greatest comfort to us," said Fatimah in tears as she hopes for a better future of her children.

Shaidah paid a lot of attention during the class and utilized her free time to do revision. She is aiming to become a teacher when she grows up so that she can teach children in the same predicament as her.

Tzu Chi believes that this education project will bring a better future for these refugees' children.

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