Malaysian grocery store owner helps teach Sandakan’s stateless children

Usman travels by boat to teach Sandakan’s stateless kids. Photos: Usman Ibrahim

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Malaysian students have had to shift to online learning due to the closure of schools during the pandemic.

Sadly, many of Sandakan’s stateless children can never have the chance to participate in a Google Meet because they do not attend school.

But Sabahan grocery store owner and volunteer teacher Usman Ibrahim wants to make a difference.

“Without the ability to improve their reading, writing and counting skills, stateless children can never earn a proper income. As a result, many of these kids will end up as fishermen or odd job workers – like their parents.

"But with access to education, they can succeed in school and beyond,” said Usman, 28, in a phone interview from Sandakan recently.

Usman lives in Pulau Mumiang, which is a 30-minute boat ride from Sandakan. He travels regularly to the mainland, where he volunteers to teach at Sandakan-based non-profit organisation Pertubuhan Pendidikan Anak Cahaya Sabah (Cahaya Society).

Funded by kind donors, the organisation is an alternative school for 30 stateless children in Sandakan, whose ages range from seven to 12 years old.Usman (centre) says with access to education, stateless children can succeed in school and beyond.Usman (centre) says with access to education, stateless children can succeed in school and beyond.

“I understand the value of education because I used to work as a teacher in a private school in Sandakan. Therefore, I believe every child is entitled to an education without discrimination,” he said.

Usman is among many millennials who go the extra mile to help those in need. He understands the plight of underprivileged communities because he comes from a poor background.

“I grew up in Pulau Mumiang, where my father was a fisherman. When I was younger, we did not have continuous electricity supply or running water.

“I’ve gone through many hardships. I’ve also witnessed the difficulties of stateless people living on the island. That is what inspired me to make a change and help our future generation,” said Usman, the third of eight siblings.

Usman keeps a busy schedule as he has to manage his business as well as teach. Thankfully, his parents and siblings manage his store when he’s at Cahaya Society.

“I wouldn’t be able to teach these students without my family’s support. Thanks to their assistance, I can juggle well between running the business and doing my part for the community. I hope to continue helping underprivileged children as long as I can.”

Stateless people are individuals who aren’t considered nationals by any state under its laws. In simple terms, that means a stateless person does not have the nationality of any country.Some of the stateless children involved in craft work at the alternative school.Some of the stateless children involved in craft work at the alternative school.

A 2019 United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) report entitled “Children Out Of School: Malaysia, The Sabah Context” states that as of Oct 2017, Sabah had the highest number of undocumented children or young adults (23,154) compared to other states.

These children are mostly offspring of Filipino and Indonesian migrants. They have no citizenship, although many of them have documents stating their birth in Sabah.

Before the pandemic, Usman and two volunteer teachers taught the students four hours on weekdays. Since the start of the second movement control order, the teachers have been going to the centre on alternate days, at different time slots.

Usman takes charge of the Year 1 and Year 2 students. Besides the 3Ms (mengira, menulis and membaca), he also teaches them life skills like creative thinking and self-awareness through recycling, gardening and taking care of personal hygiene.

He is determined to equip his students with the rudimentary skills of reading, writing and math.

“Many of these children do not know how to hold a pencil or recognise alphabets. The issue is their parents are uneducated too. A lot of effort goes into teaching them from scratch.

“Even though it requires a lot of hard work and patience, I am determined to guide them as much as I can,” said Usman.

One of his biggest challenges is coaxing the students to attend school regularly.

“Some of the parents do not see the need for an education. They prefer their kids to work as scavengers or fishermen from a young age.

“They’d rather their kids earn money to help their family than study. It’s difficult to change their mindset but I continue to persevere.”

Despite the hurdles, Usman is willing to invest in his students’ future.

“I know knowledge can help thrust them onto the right path towards empowerment, good health and employment.”

For more details, go to Cahaya Society's Facebook page.

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