Student volunteers: Our unsung heroes

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  • Thursday, 08 Jan 2015

School boys chipping in.

SK Sg Pinang, Kelantan. The mud was thick. At its deepest, just under my knees. There was a lot of it. At its highest, just over my head.

I'm not a very tall person, but the mud carried by the floods would have drowned me. It reminded me of 2004 when the tsunami hit. Homes in Kedah were inundated. People died not from the water, but by the mud. The mud left a mark along the house walls as if to say "safe if above this line".

The mud was everywhere. We pushed it from inside the classrooms to the corridors. Then the walkways, and finally onto the grass or any available open space. We pushed and pushed and pushed. At times it felt like sweeping sand on a beach. Some of the mud would dry up and be blown away by the wind.

A glass shard pierced my boots. I felt it gently graze my foot. Half a centimetre more and it could have been disastrous. The mud hides many things. An old Bahasa Malaysia textbook, somebody's glasses, and a pencil case just some of the surprises.

The smell smelled funky, not like the fresh chicken in the market, rather fish mixed with freshly cut grass. "It's very fertile soil" said my colleague. "Conducive for agriculture".  Bubbles could be seen on some parts of the mud, like small crabs were hiding underneath. From such destruction comes such valuable mud. Such irony yet beauty.

USM students. The one with the face mask is the dean. But I can't remember which faculty.

Most of the flood has subsided and the water receding. "Don't be too happy yet" said my colleague. More dangers lie ahead. Mosquitos, disease, and disruptive tourist. Yes, tourists. (See The Star's headline yesterday). The flooding was just the beginning for most. "But we always manage" says the colleague who hails from Pasir Mas. "Ever since the last big flood in 1967, houses were no longer built on stilts. It'll be interesting to see whether the new generation returns to that form of architecture".

Sekolah Pulau Beluru (not Peluru... Yes, it would have been an epic backstory otherwise). A school only accessible by boat. The connecting bridge had been destroyed when tree logs carried by the floods rammed into it. As we entered, many volunteers were already there cleaning the school. There were volunteers from the maritime and fisheries department, university students and state education officials (with the worlds "Sukarelawan Jabatan Pendidikan Negeri Kelantan" brightly printed on the back of their shirts). They could be seen washing, carrying mud, scrubbing the walls and carrying destroyed property. Some of the schools students were there too helping to clean up with their teachers. "Saya sayang sekolah ni" (I love this school) said one of the boys.

Volunteers were plentiful. I met students from Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UniMAP), Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT), and Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in one school categorized as "Tier 1", meaning severely affected by the floods and needs heavy machinery to help with clean up work. The dean of one of USM's faculty's was there too. So too were trainees of Teacher Training Colleges (IPGs). Good to see future teachers giving their all. I met members of a Buddhist association, Tzu Chi, who were helping out while looking snazzy in their matching white-collared blue-sleeved shirts and name tags bearing their name and pictures.

Cleaning SK Pulau Beluru.

According to the Ministry of Education, more than 50,000 students and staff from public and private institutions of higher education will be mobilized beginning 1 January 2015 to assist with flood relief. Unprecedented. From my time in Kelantan, it shows. On top of this, organizations like IM4U and Yayasan Sukarelawan Siswa (YSS) have been doing a great job coordinating the volunteers and managing supplies.

I'm told Community College students have sewn 5000 school uniforms to be given away for free. They'll also be baking 1000 pieces of bread to be distributed. Polytechnic students on the other hand have been helping to fix electrical wiring in homes affected by the floods. And not too long ago, Universiti Malaya (UM), and UiTM doctors, including specialists, and nurses were deployed to provide medical care and aid.

In a picture circulating on social media, a UPSI (Sultan Ibrahim Education University) student could be seen helping a bedridden patient onto a lifeboat during the height of the floods. Inside, the students holds an umbrella while a nurse holds a drip bag to keep the patient safe, comfortable and alive.

I'm told that as at 6 January 2015, the clean up rate in Kelantan stands at nearly 60%. Local volunteer leaders are confident that schools will be ready to open by Monday, 12 January. Students who do not have proper uniforms have been allowed to wear other suitable attire.

I'm truly humbled by the heart and soul shown by the volunteers. Their patience, passion and sincerity truly shines, and it's great to start 2015 with images and stories of these unsung heroes in such troubling times for our fellow Malaysians.

Here's to a blessed 2015. Happy New Year.
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Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman has education close to his heart. He tweets at @danial_ari and welcomes feedback at


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