“No one chooses to be a refugee,” Ruba, 41, says in earnest. Her youthful face belies the troubled life she has led. A Sri Lankan Tamil by birth, she fled her homeland nine years ago with her husband and two sons.
The family packed their lives into one suitcase and boarded a plane for Kuala Lumpur. They were running from a country riven by civil war, where their livelihoods had been threatened and their lives targeted. On arrival, they stayed in a hotel in Brickfields, barely daring to venture out for fear of arrest.
Ruba’s body reacted badly to the stress: her blood pressure skyrocketed; her arms and legs swelled up. Confronted by a new reality they found hard to accept, they hid indoors for months.
But in time, she found her feet again, however much she had to stumble first. In that single suitcase, she remembered she had packed her sons’ report cards. They were pieces of paper, yet her most prized possessions. For Ruba, education was the most valuable asset on earth. She decided then that she would not let their futures slip away, no matter how precarious their situation.
As a teacher, she would find a way to do what gave her most hope: teaching. Soon she found work with an NGO, visiting Tamil schools to tutor the slow learners. It gave her life some semblance of normalcy.
Today she is the principal of the SL(T) Refugees International Learning Centre, a school with 90 refugee students. Ruba has come a long way from those bleak early days. She now uses her expertise to recruit and train women from within the refugee community to teach at the school.
“I promise the children that we’ll give them the best education that we can, so they have the knowledge and the qualifications for their future. At the same time, I tell the children and the community that we must help other refugee children. We’re a multicultural school,” she says.
The school’s diversity – over half Sri Lankan with the remainder Pakistani, Myanmarese and West African – reflects the diverse composition of refugees in Malaysia.
According to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), there are around 152,830 registered refugees and asylum-seekers in the country. The majority are from Myanmar, some 141,920, while the rest are from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Somalia, the Middle East and a handful of other countries.
Since Malaysia is not party to the UN Refugee Convention, refugees have no official status and are considered illegal immigrants by law. However, there is de facto acceptance of refugees under UNHCR’s mandate, albeit without affording them any real rights.
“We don’t have any status here. The children can’t go to local schools. There’s no future for the children,” she says.
Responding to the community’s desire to educate their kids, as well as realising the detrimental effects of disrupted schooling, she established the school with the help of sponsors in 2012. From offering only a secondary programme for teenagers three days a week, it now caters to students aged 3 to 18, five days a week.
Still, Ruba worries that the children can only go so far and no further in their education. Without resettlement – relocation to a third country where they will have similar rights to nationals, and eventually become naturalised citizens – they are all stuck.
“It’s definitely a pathetic situation. It’s no way to live.”
Always on edge
Mohammad, 55, is an ethnic Rohingya who is trapped in the no-man’s-land of being a refugee. Smuggled across the Thai border in 1992, he has been stranded in limbo for much longer than Ruba. An elder of the Rohingya community in Selayang, Kuala Lumpur, Mohammad helps to arbitrate disputes between members and settle new arrivals.
Tall and broad-shouldered, he has the rugged face and weathered hands of someone who has worked a lifetime of menial jobs. His demeanour is one of weary resignation.
Although he holds a UNHCR card identifying him as a refugee, Mohammad is an illegal immigrant under the law and lives in fear of being picked up by law enforcement officers. But he knows from experience that having cash in his pocket is helpful in persuading these officers to let him go.
“I’ve been deported to Thailand three times,” he says, voice oddly expressionless. He rattles off the years and detention periods, barely pausing for breath.
He recounts vividly the details of each deportation, and the survival instinct that spurred him on.
He now lives in a drab flat with his ailing wife and four kids. The floor is blanketed in sticky dirt; an old keyboard, two TV screens, and modems are stacked haphazardly on a low cupboard.
When they’re not working or in school, the family spend most of their time at home. Mohammad sells vegetables that he plucks from the jungle nearby, while his two sons work as a mechanic and an electrician.
“We’re scared to go out because we’re afraid of being caught. My sons and I always carry at least RM300 on us when we’re out, just in case,” he reveals with a shrug, shaking his head.
“Life for us is like floating on water. We’re not considered Myanmar citizens, but we’re not Malaysian citizens either. We don’t belong anywhere,” he continues, echoing Ruba’s sentiments.
Like Mohammad, Ruba confides that the threat of arrest and detention is real: “Our boys are terrified whenever they see a policeman. They say it’s the same kind of terror they felt when they saw the Sri Lankan military back home.”
In spite of this, Mohammad has stayed active in the Rohingya community. He explains that there is a vast difference between how he was treated and how new Rohingya refugees are treated.
“When I entered Malaysia, I paid the smuggler and he brought me here safely. Now, the people are treated like animals by the traffickers.”
The difference is that Mohammad was smuggled and Rohingyas are now trafficked. Both are crimes, but human trafficking is far more brutal, with traffickers holding many Rohingyas hostage and demanding money from relatives for their release.
“The traffickers are so cruel. Our people leave Myanmar thinking that they’ll have a better life, but what they go through to get here adds to their misery. The people left to die at sea a few weeks ago was terrible, but I wasn’t that surprised.
“This kind of abuse, on top of the abuse they got from the Myanmar government, has really traumatised them,” he bemoans. “There are women who arrive pregnant, raped by the traffickers. We try to do what we can for them, but it’s never easy.”
He wrings his hands agitatedly, voice quavering with anger.
To compound the community’s problems, Mohammad claims that another huge issue they face is the disunity amongst them.
“There are too many groups and organisations now. They all speak up for their own interests, not for ours.”
Consequently, the community is divided, rival factions advancing their agendas at the cost of collective unity.
Unlike the Sri Lankan and other refugee communities, the Rohingyas are perhaps the most fragmented. “It would be better for the UNHCR, the Malaysian government and for us if we spoke as one,” he says.
It would also be better for everyone’s survival.
For refugees in an alien land, surviving on their own is impossible. When Afghan refugees Hamid, 27, and Basir, 26, made their way here from war-torn Afghanistan several years ago, they left their network of family and friends behind. They relied instead on the generosity of Afghan refugees who were already here. But they longed for more.
“I was hoping that there would be more of a community for me in Malaysia,” Hamid says. Basir concurs, the two relating similar stories of infrequent work and spells of homelessness.
After consulting the community elders, it was mutually agreed that there should be an organisation for them. Thus the Afghan Community Centre (ACC) was born. They have 125 members, and collect a membership fee of RM20 per month from each family. The money is used to fund the organisation’s operations, along with aiding members who need money and providing English classes.
In a bid to learn and improve, they have visited the Pakistani and Sri Lankan refugee communities to develop the ACC further. In particular, the Sri Lankan Tamil Refugee Organisation of Malaysia (STROM) has been a pioneering force.
It was founded in 2009 with Ruba as its first president. Once again, it was the result of the community’s wish to have proper representation, as well as to offer a much-needed support system.
“We realised that if we had a community organisation, we could compile all the issues we have, discuss them, and then go to the UNHCR. If someone is going for an interview for a UNHCR card and doesn’t know how to answer questions, we tell them what to highlight,” she says.
The ACC serves the Afghan refugee community in the same ways. They too assist with applications for UNHCR cards and discuss the issues they face before liaising with the UNHCR.
“When new refugees arrive, we tell them where to buy food, help them find a place to live and let them know about job opportunities,” Basir adds.
Good old-fashioned teamwork is the only way forward, even if it’s one inch at a time.
The refugee journey is perilous, and the lives they make for themselves fragile. Their movements are circumscribed by laws beyond their control, their lives shaped by circumstances they were born into.
It’s certainly not a choice, as Hamid says, with steely-eyed conviction.
“I’m sure that if you ask any refugee in the world, they’ll tell you the same thing: no one chooses to be a refugee.”