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Monday February 2, 2009

Learning haven

This is a school without desks or chairs, but the students are only too happy to have access to some form of education

WALK down one of the rubbish-strewn lanes in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, and you will come across the narrow entrance to a nondescript flat. Just minutes away are some of the glitziest malls in the city, but here, the atmosphere couldn’t be more different.

Small, messy stalls line the lane, and the people walking around, going about their daily business, look distinctly non-local.

Pretty picture: A young refugee from Myanmar of Chin origin sitting in her class at a flat in Kuala Lumpur.

Inside the building, the stairwell is dim, grubby, and rather dank. Climb up three flights of stairs and you will arrive at a cramped unit. Clothes-lines hang right outside the flat’s narrow corridor, aflutter with the day’s washing. With its shabby walls and linoleum-lined floors, this unit looks no different from any of the others in the building.

Except for the large group of laughing, chattering children sitting inside. Their eyes are on an adult who is pointing to a whiteboard and speaking loudly. Surrounding them are piles of books and stationery; more sit on the bookshelves lining one side of the room.

Hand-drawn posters and educational charts liven up the plain walls, and two computers sit in a corner. These children are Myanmar refugees of Chin ethnicity, forced to flee to Malaysia to escape religious persecution and human rights violations.

Silver lining: Young refugees hanging out outside their flat units on the same floor where they attend classes. These classes are not only a way for them to obtain some form of learning, but also prepare them for the future that awaits them if and when they are resettled.

The children do not wear uniforms, there are no desks or chairs, and classrooms are simply different units on the same floor. Yet, for the 150 students who study here daily, this little flat is the closest thing to a school they have in Malaysia. More significantly, it is their only hope for some form of education as they wait for a solution to their problems.

The Chins, who hail from the Chin State in western Myanmar, are one of eight major ethnic groups in the conflict-ridden country. The majority of the Chins are Christians. Like other communities in the Buddhist-majority nation, many Chins have been fleeing their homeland to escape the harsh living conditions under the present military government.

Simple but essential: Refugees from Myanmar attending a class at a flat in Kuala Lumpur. The school’s semester is from January to early December and classes are held from 10am to 2pm, Monday to Friday. – Reuters / Bazuki Muhmmad (Malaysia)

As of November last year, there are some 44,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia. Of these, 39,000 are from Myanmar. The Chins make up 14,300 or 37%, of that number.

As Malaysia did not sign the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees are not allowed to settle here permanently. They can be here on a temporary basis, waiting either for resettlement by the UNHCR, or for the unrest in their home countries to be resolved. The refugees’ uncertain status, however, creates a host of complications.

They are not able to get formal employment, which leaves them not only struggling for money, but also open to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. Many of them cannot even afford the healthcare available at government hospitals and clinics. Refugee children are also not able to attend government schools, and most of them cannot afford private education.

Mark this: Young refugees checking their exam results.

This is where schools such as the one described above play a key role. Supported by local NGO Malaysian Care and UNHCR, this school is one of six that are scattered in various locations in the Klang Valley. The classes are run by the Chin Student Organisation (CSO), which was founded by a group of Myanmar refugees in 2005. The organisation was started as a means of providing Chin children access to education.

The importance of education to these children cannot be overstated. The CSO views it as the means to a brighter future. With the majority of parents struggling to find work or making do with menial labour jobs, these classes are not only a way for the children to obtain some form of learning, but also prepare them for the future that awaits them if and when they are resettled.

Ester Moe: ‘I love coming here because I have a school now.’

“Our organisation’s motto is: ‘Hope for the future’,” says CSO secretary Billy Bawi Cung, who is one of the nine teachers at the school. “Education is our one chance (for a better future), both for our people and our country. These children are our only hope, and through education, we wish to give them a better life than the one we had back home.”

CSO chairman Cung Lian Thawng (who is known as Thawng) adds that due to the unrest in their home country, some of the children don’t even know what school is like. “Every child deserves to go to school, deserves to learn. That is why we are doing this,” he says.

Besides being a teacher at the school, Thawng is also one of the founders of the CSO. “Most of the children in our community here just stay at home, because there is nothing for them to do,” says Thawng. “So we started thinking about what we could do to help them, and that is how the idea for CSO started.”

The school’s semester is from January to early December, and classes are held from 10am to 2pm, Monday to Friday. The students range from three to 17 years of age, and are divided into five classes: pre-school, kindergarten, and grades one to three. They are taught four subjects: English, Mathematics, Science and Chin Literature.

Fourteen-year-old Elen’s favourite subject is Science.

The teaching of the Chin language and literature is an important aspect of the school because, according to Billy and Thawng, the subject is no longer taught in schools in Myanmar. “We were taught our language and literature when we were younger, but it isn’t allowed anymore,” says Billy. “It is sad, but the truth is, many of our children don’t know our own language.”

Many of the children only started learning English through this school. Billy proudly shares how three of their former students have gone on to receive awards in their schools after being resettled in the United States.

The teachers, who are all CSO members, go beyond the call of duty to ensure that the school runs smoothly. Besides organising activities like sing-alongs and games to keep the students entertained, the teachers even cook meals for the children’s breaks. They also organise events like indoor games, sports day, annual concerts and excursions for the children.

Bawi Hnem: ‘We come to school, meet people and make friends.’

The teachers and CSO members are also involved in raising funds for the school. They come up with a weekly newsletter on the local Chin community, and sell it at their church every week. They also look for donations from private donors.

Looking at the children, it is apparent that coming to school is one of the day’s highlights. Bawi Hnem, 17, who has been in Malaysia for the past four years, shyly shares that the school has improved her knowledge. “It also makes life more enjoyable for us. We come to school, meet people and make friends,” she says.

Elen, 14, agrees, saying that he could not speak a word of English before coming to Malaysia a year ago. Now he can understand the language and speak it a little. He adds that his favourite subject is Science.

Amidst all the difficulties these children are facing, the impact of efforts like this is best summed up in the profound words of Ester Moe, 11: “I love coming here because I have a school now; I have a chance to learn.”