The audience was accepted into the Zoom call at 8 pm sharp, there were 81 people present including the AIESEC organising committee. The audience slowly grew to 100 people and the event officially began at 8.05, with the Chairperson, Elaine Quek Yee Leng, welcoming the audience and presenting a short brief regarding the purpose and objective of the event. “The Empowering Equalities: Debunking Refugee Myths” Panel Discussion covered the lives and issues faced by refugees in Malaysia including insights from different panelists from various backgrounds. Through the panelists’ perspective, the organisers hoped to provide the audience with a better understanding of the refugee community.
Elaine proceeded to describe the Agenda for the evening, which included an opening speech from a member of the organising committee, Yap Yoong Xin, followed by the introduction of the 3 panelists present, panel discussion on the 7 questions prepared by the organising committee, proceeding to a Q&A session where the audience may question the panelists, and last but not least a closing speech followed by a recap of the night’s discussion.
OPENING SPEECH- WHAT IS AIESEC?
Elaine then passed the floor to Yoong Xin to present the opening speech. Yoong Xin proceeded to brief the audience on the background of AIESEC. As she explained, AIESEC is a global non profit, non political and independent organisation run by students and recent graduates. It acts as a platform for youth to explore and build their leadership skills. AIESEC strives to achieve peace and fulfillment of humanity’s potential. They are also invested in realising the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) through projects contributing to the communities in need.
The Empowering Equalities Project aimed to contribute to SDG 10 – Reduced Inequalities, by promoting social inclusivity of refugees in Malaysia through providing education opportunities. This is because refugee children under 18 years old do not have access to formal education as they are not permitted to attend public schools in Malaysia. Therefore, this project aimed to raise awareness towards issues faced by the refugee community and change the public’s flawed perspective on them.
INTRODUCTION OF THE PANELISTS
Ms Angelina Tay of Manna House Learning Centre (MHLC)
Elaine then continued to introduce the three honourable panelists present, starting with Ms Angelina Tay of Manna House Learning Centre (MHLC). Ms Angelina has been a teacher, volunteer coordinator, and academic planner at MHLC for more than 6 years. Ms Angelina was then asked to introduce herself as well as MHLC. She proceeded to describe her experience working with vulnerable communities as in the past she has worked with the Orang Asli community for about 5 years. She continued to explain that MHLC is a refugee learning center with the mission of providing education opportunities for all refugee children regardless of nationality and religion.
Ms Angelina continued to explain that before the organisation was under the Manna House name, MHLC was recognised as the Zomi Education Centre (ZEC). It was founded more than 10 years ago by a Pastor in the Zomi Christian community in Sunway Mentari to provide their children with some form of education. The Zomi Community is a part of the Chin population in Myanmar. ZEC was operating since 2012 and only formally embraced by the Manna House Church in 2014. From a humble in-home learning centre hosting only about 20 children, MHLC has advanced into a school with better curriculum and teaching outlines now catering to 80 children, ranging from age 4 to 17, providing services from nursery care up to all academic courses of Year 9. In addition to this, they are also officially registered under the UNHCR.
She clarified that currently, the majority of the children in MHLC are from the Zomi Community. Their families essentially fled their homeland to escape imprisonment as well as poverty back in Myanmar. Other families at the centre are from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Therefore the school was founded out of urgency as children of refugees in Malaysia cannot enrol in Public Schools and they also do not have the means to afford private education and so without learning centres, refugee children will be deprived of education entirely.
Ms Angelina conveyed her hopes of one day shutting down the school due to laws being amended that will allow refugee children to seek education in public institutions.
Further Information on MHLC:
Their Facebook: @Manna House Learning Centre
Their Website: https://mannahousecenter.org/
Their Location : PJS 8, Sunway Mentari, Petaling Jaya
Ms Logeetha Balakrishnan of PichaEats
As Ms Angelina concluded her introduction, Elaine welcomed Ms Logeetha from PichaEats to introduce herself as well as the organisation she was representing. Ms Logeetha Balakrishnan is the Makan Advisor also known as the Account Manager at Picha. After experiencing several years in the corporate scene, she chose to explore a different environment of social dynamism and the food business through Picha. Picha is an award-winning social enterprise, with the co-founders having achieved a place in the Forbes 30 under 30 Asia 2018 list, Allianz Future Generations Award, and Chivas The Venture Top 5 finalist. It was established as a means for refugees in Malaysia to secure sustainable earnings through a food catering and delivery service. Having served at Picha for 3 years, she vouched that there is no greater way to unite people and increase awareness than through delicious meals.
She continued to clarify that PichaEats is a social company striving to serve people with exceptional meals and simultaneously present a golden opportunity for refugees mainly in Klang Valley to begin a fresh start in life. Since January 2016, they have collaborated with 25 chefs from Syria, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq and Pakistan, serving people delicacies from the refugees’ homelands. For example, Rohingya Curry, Palestinian Hummus to Afghani Dumplings and Syrian desserts – with everything made of authenticity and sincerity.
On top of that, they have served 135,000 meals for corporate events and have redirected RM 2mil to the chefs, to ensure that all their children can receive an education. She explained that in 2016, an idea sparked, “if the refugee community can cook, and everyone eats every day, why not start a food business?” The three co-founders, Ms Lim Yuet Kim, Ms Suzanne Ling and Ms Lee Swee Lin locate families that can cook, have them professionally trained, design menus and packaging, manage branding and marketing. They also orchestrate delivery logistics to get the food to customers. According to her, they determined to name this business after Picha, as an acting reminder that this company was established for the community and shall proceed to expand and aid more families.
Further Information on PichaEats:
Their Facebook & Instagram: @pichaeats
Their Twitter: @PichaEats
Their Website: https://pichaeats.com/
Ms Katrina Jorene Maliamauv of Amnesty International Malaysia
As Ms Logeetha’s speech came to an end, Elaine introduced the audience to Ms Katrina Jorene Maliamauv. She is a human rights activist, writer and educator who has served for the past 13 years to support and protect the rights and liberties of migrants, refugees and enslaved communities. She is currently the Executive Director of Amnesty International Malaysia. She has a BSc in Psychology, and as a Chevening Scholarship recipient, achieved a Master’s degree in Applied Human Rights from the University of York. Ms Katrina is consistent in the pursuit of justice, is a feminist, and a believer in the power of hope, radical love, and collective action to reimagine and design a more inclusive, unprejudiced and just world for everyone.
Amnesty International Malaysia is part of a global movement with over 7 million members worldwide with multiple school groups and local groups, one even located in Sunway. Their vision of the world is where every person experiences all human rights sanctified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments. In Malaysia, their flagship operations centre on freedom of expression, death penalty abolition, and ceasing police brutality and cruelty in prison. They also do reactive work, especially on human rights violations against indigenous, refugee/migrant, and LGBTI communities, and aid people to demand their rights through human rights education.`
Further Information on Amnesty International Malaysia:
Their Facebook & Twitter: @AmnestyMy
Their Instagram: @amnesty_my
Their Website: https://www.amnesty.my/
SDG 10 – REDUCED INEQUALITIES
SDG 10 is the main goal targeted by the Empowering Equalities project as there are many inequalities around the world especially in low income countries and Covid-19 has amplified and worsened the situation in terms of economic, social and political impact. This is proven as the global unemployment rate is increasing, negatively impacting the income of vulnerable communities and women’s rights movements specifically relating to women’s health, security and social protection. Inequalities are significantly increasing in countries facing existing humanitarian crisis and weaker health systems. Refugees, migrants, elderlies, indeginous people, the diabled, and children are particularly at risk.
The project specifically focused on SDG 10.2 which indicates that by the year 2030, communities are able to empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of everyone unconditionally. “How does this project contribute to realising SDG 10.2? And why are refugees the targeted community of this project?”. Based on research, at the end of November 2020, there are around 178000 refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, and amongst them are more than 46000 that are below the age of 18 that do not have access to formal education as refugee children are not allowed to attend public institutions. The public is unaware of the difficulties faced by the refugee community. Hence, this project aimed to raise public awareness and funds for refugee centres to improve the overall quality of life for refugees.
Elaine then continued to present the Keynote topic for the event
- “In your organisation how feasible is it to achieve SDG 10.2 by 2030?” and “What are the efforts your organisation has taken or will take to achieve it?”
Ms Angelina explained that her group aims to encourage the children to air what they feel regarding the condition and state of the school. This is so that the management is able to continuously improve to provide the children with the best care possible. Based on the many sharing sessions they’ve conducted, they realised that the children have a lot of concerns and interests that they would like to pursue. Changes and improvements have been made accordingly and so she believes that the initiative is successful and they will continue to conduct the sharing sessions.
Ms Logeetha claimed that she is not sure how feasible the goal is because it requires a lot of parties’ cooperation and on a national level it takes more than 1 or 10 organisations to realise this goal into a reality. She clarified that the reason she started the business was to find a way to keep children in school as she realised a lot of refugee kids were dropping out of school due to the inability to pay school fees. A lack of a sustainable source of income is affecting them at such a young age, so they wanted to solve the economic problem that the refugee children and families are facing. Up until today they have worked with more than 100 organisations on this goal, but there is still a long way to go.
Ms Katrina stated that feasibility is a difficult question because vision and concern regarding the matter is absent. However that is exactly what is necessary because without visions and worries regarding the matter there will be no urge to do something about it. She knows it won’t be feasible if it’s treated as something unimportant. According to her, a sense of community towards this issue is important right now. Systems and practices and the general perspective of the issue shapes the situation so if the world is to reach a place of complete inclusion, everybody needs to realise what it takes to achieve that.
She continued to explain that exploitation of communities does not happen naturally. There are actions, practices and culture that lead to this. She firmly stated that people need to realise it is completely in the community’s power to change the situation through words, actions and practices. People often think that they do not have the means to make a difference as the laws and culture are as such, but the people need to realise that it is them who decide who the lawmakers are and they are there to serve the people. It is also the people who will educate their children and family members to adapt better cultures and practices. One of the issues targeted by Amnesty international is the freedom of expression as without it people are not able to stand up for issues that they are passionate about and they will be silenced.
And she described the difference between Asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants. She used an analogy of a building’s tiers, explaining that at the bottom base is where asylum seekers are, as they are people who have left their country and are seeking protection from persecution. Their requests for sanctuary have yet to be processed and have not been legally recognized as a refugee. Every refugee is initially an asylum seeker. In the middle tier are refugees. Refugees are people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country. They are defined and protected by international law, specifically the 1951 Refugee Convention. At the top tier are migrants. Migrants are people who choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death but mainly to improve their lives such as finding work, or in some cases for education, reuniting with their family, or other reasons.
PANEL DISCUSSION QUESTION
Li Yen continued to ask the first panel discussion question: “How does Covid-19 affect the current situation of refugees in Malaysia? How is their experience different from us?”
A summary of the discussion:
When Covid-19 hit Malaysia in March of 2020, the community was caught by surprise, especially when the MCO was implemented. Almost immediately, over 80% of refugee parents lost their livelihood. They are the most dispensable of the workforce, so it was not surprising that employers choose to release them first. Most were afraid, from catching the virus to worrying about losing their rental homes and food source. The children were also stressed from not able to attend school for months.
Some organisations were really fortunate to have had generous donors who came forward to help finance Food Aids. All in all, MHLC sent out almost 6 Food Aid packages to the families during the MCO months. During the CMCO period, the families were still struggling, many required aids and were having issues getting their jobs back. Till today, a number of parents are still trying to look for jobs. The saddest thing to see is that a few of the young teenagers are currently working to help support their families. It is easier for them to find part time jobs as they are able to converse in English, unlike most of their parents.
About 80% of the MHLC families are living in Mentari Court, it isn’t unusual to see 3 families cramped into a 3-bedroom apartment. This has become more common after the MCO. Most of the families have multiple children as well. So, it isn’t really surprising to hear that some apartments have as many as 10 (or more) people in them. Pre-MCO, they were still able to live a fairly comfortable life, there was enough food on the table and a roof over their heads. Post-MCO, there are more families moving in with one another to save on rental.
The second question asked was: “What do you think are the first few words that come to people’s minds when they hear the word refugees? And why?”
Ms Logeetha claimed that the most common words used to describe the community are “dangerous, dirty, unsafe, and a lot of warnings to be careful because ‘you never know’”. It’s easy to realise that the people who say this don’t know the reality and what exactly they are afraid of because the ‘unknown’ is where their fears stem from. She concluded that this shows that it stems from a lack of awareness because ignorance amplifies one’s fears and misconceptions.
Ms Angelina continued the discussion stating that a lot of people tend to think that all refugees are uneducated. Hence, people tend to look down on them treating them badly. She has had some refugee children say they’re afraid of going to the public playground because the local kids will bully them into leaving, and not only verbally but sometimes physically as well. This is most likely because the local children are taught by their parents that the refugee children do not belong here. She hopes that the public perception of refugees will improve through education and awareness.
Ms Katrina said that in Malaysia the word refugee is tied to the word ‘illegal’, and it’s quite a hideous term, because it feeds into the fear of “threat and risk, danger, unwanted etc”. There’s this mental stigma to these words that leaders, politicians, and family members have taught the public. People create the stigma and the media has significantly helped in perpetuating this stigma and fear, so counter narratives are important as they go deeper than just awareness because people can be aware but still be prejudicial. Sometimes people say things like “not all refugees are uneducated and not all of them are pleading for asylum” but so what if they are uneducated and jobless, people’s worth should lie only on the fact that they exist. Jobs and education do not play into the matter, and people need to reassess how they view human value and worth.
Li Yen proceeded to ask the third question of the night: “What are the common risks, plights and inequalities that refugees face in Malaysia?”
In summary the discussion concluded that:
Because Malaysia is NOT a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Malaysia does not recognize the rights of an asylum seeker. While many refugees in Malaysia hold a UNHCR registration card, this does not always protect them. Card holders can still be subject to arrest, and that is their biggest fear. They are also not allowed to work legally, due to their illegal status. Their children also cannot access proper education. As mentioned, the children are unable to attend national schools. Some private learning centres will accept UNHCR card holders as students but their tuition fees are simply beyond the parents’ ability.
In terms of affordable healthcare that Malaysian citizens enjoy, refugees are also not able to access that. As an example, a doctor’s consultation fee at government hospitals may cost a Malaysian only RM5. As a foreigner, they will be charged about RM120. So, healthcare remains a really big concern for the refugee families, especially for expecting mothers. They are sometimes able to get a discount with a letter from UNHCR but hospital charges still remain very high. Many will borrow and beg to cover hospital fees.
The fourth panel discussion question was: “Some say that refugees and migrants are a drain on the economy, what are your thoughts on this?”
Ms Logeetha, based on her experience at Picha, stated that refugees are contributing rather than draining. This is because PichaEats is a regular business which contributes to the cycle of economy, with the only difference being the origin of the employees. Ms Angelina agreed with Ms Logeetha in the sense that refugees are often contributing more than draining because work status is another issue that is common amongst the refugees. Being illegal means that they will work for pittance and it is frequently a take it or leave it situation. Employers are also not bound to provide them any benefits at all. The inequality is very pronounced and yet, due to their desperation, they will still have to take any decent jobs that come their way.
For refugee children, of course, the biggest issue is that they are being denied their basic right to education. No matter how intelligent, or how hardworking they are, to be able to continue their journey towards a tertiary education is just a pipe dream. That is if they remain here as an illegal. Healthcare is a universal concern of refugees here. Unless it becomes really serious, they will try to self-medicate first. They will generally visit the GPs that they trust. According to Ms Angelina, there is a GP around MHLC’s area who is absolutely wonderful and charges minimally for refugee families.
The fifth question of the night was: “What are the most important values or lessons you have learnt having dealt with the refugee community yourself?”
Ms Angelina mentioned that 6 and a half years ago when she joined the centre, the children looked so innocent and adorable that she fell in love with them immediately. Over the years she realised all children are the same. They have the same hopes and dreams and they want to do the same things that other kids want to do and experience, but it’s sad to see they realised that they are being discriminated against and marginalised. In spite of that, they have always treated the Malaysian volunteers and teachers with respect and kindness and the parents are also so supportive and amazing that it has been a humbling experience for her.
Ms Logeetha continued the conversation stating that not only in regards to dealing with the refugee community but dealing with all vulnerable communities, “you learn to respect how different people do things because there is no one right culture and lifestyle. The refugees are individually so different so we can’t generalise them”. The most important thing she has learned is respecting and understanding why people do things differently.
Ms Katrina claimed that people are more alike than different as human beings, but people only see refugees as refugees, as people fleeing their countries, as victims. However refugees are normal people with dreams, ideas, beliefs and hopes and they are one of the strongest, most resilient people as they have survived war and persecution, came to a country where they face decrimination and harshness and they still push through and survive. That takes a lot of bravery. At the end of the day people want to be left alone, they don’t want any special treatment, they just want to work and make a living and spend good time with their families and friends in peace. In conclusion, she has learned so much about being a stronger person through working with vulnerable communities.
The next question asked: “How would you view a government’s effort in improving refugees’ status quo? What should the government provide to ensure refugees are granted equal opportunities?”
There are many issues that have been discussed on refugee rights. According to Ms Angelina, she would like to just focus on education for refugee kids. To her, this is really key as without the benefit of education, the refugee kids will not be able to contribute optimally to society. She is not saying that without education, they have no future. But with education, they can contribute more. Many of the families live here long term as they wait for resettlement. Hence, they become part of the society as well. People need to think as a “We” and not as an “I” in order for everyone to co-exist successfully. For her, personally, she would love to see all the kids be able to attend the national school one day. She truly hopes that the government can make this happen.
The panelists agree that this awareness talk is one fantastic way to dispel certain views people have of refugees and they thank the organising committee for holding the event. The more information gets out there, the less suspicious people will be towards this highly marginalized group of people.
There are many ways where people can help. Donations and food aid are some ways but the panelists would really like to plead for just kindness and empathy. Some of the children are just so sad that they are treated badly because of their status. They are made to feel small and inadequate. They are bullied and shouted at.
“Kindness is free to dispense, please be generous with your kindness. Please help us restore their faith that people are essentially good.”, Ms Angelina pleaded.
The panelists continue to state that it is very disheartening to see that in the past few years, the plight of the refugees has become a lot more prominent. “Many Malaysians are unaware that refugees live amongst us”, Ms Angelina stated. They are usually invisible, until something negative about them is highlighted. Most recently, there is a lot of negativity towards refugees during these MCO and CMCO months. With more awareness and education, they believe that people can turn the tide against this stigmatized group of people.
In the past few years, Ms Angelina continued to claim that they have an increased number of volunteers from universities near their school. From their feedback, most of the volunteers expressed a changed mindset about refugees and increased empathy towards them. Organizations like AIESEC in Sunway have been partnering with refugee organisations for years to help educate the little ones and have been instrumental in helping the community raise awareness on their plights.
On a national scale, UNHCR has partnered with many NGOs to make life better for refugees. One example is the partnership with Global Doctors Malaysia for provision of accessible and affordable healthcare. Community groups are vital to refugees as many of them still struggle with language barriers. A lot of the families access the Zomi Refugee Committee centre for information and help. Malaysian community groups have also been really active this year, most notably, the Refuge for the Refugees (RFTR). Collectively, this strengthens the voice of refugees in Malaysia.
As the panel discussion came to a close, the organisers requested the audience to turn on their cameras for a brief group photo session. Then they moved on to the Q&A session after collecting a few questions from the audience throughout the discussion.
The first question from the audience was: “How different is it dealing with refugees in Malaysia as compared to overseas?”
Ms Angelina stated that she has experienced working with families that have been resettled in the USA. Once they arrive there, a local NGO assists them for the next 6 months, with english classes, houses them for 3 months, helping them with expenditure etc, and once they’re on their feet they are able to leave the NGOs care. This is different to the experience refugees face in Malaysia where they are completely alone, and if without local family or friends to rely on, they’ll most likely end up homeless.
Ms Katrina added that a few years ago Malaysia ranked as one of the worst places in the world for refugees. It’s the fact that in Malaysia there are no policies protecting refugees so there is active systemic discrimination. Countries with less resources than Malaysia are able to contribute to the refugee community so it isn’t the issue of lacking resources but rather the ‘want’ to contribute.
The next question was asked by an audience member personally as she unmuted herself to ask the question: “Is there a lack of international cooperation when dealing with the refugee crisis?”
The answer given by the panelists were yes indeed. An example of this is Malaysia’s closest neighboring nation, Myanmar as the Rohingya Muslims were forced to flee Myanmar. In general the refugee crisis will not end as long as countries of origin do not cease unjust persecutions and countries are not collaborating and cooperating as a unit to end injustices and enable human rights to be enjoyed by all.
With that, the Q&A session ended as Elaine began her closing speech, thanking Li Yen and the audience for attending and participating and thanking the fellow panelists for taking the time to be a part of the project. She also took the opportunity to thank the AIESEC organising community for their hard work in enabling the success of this project. The event officially ended at 9.50 pm.
Watch the full discussion at: https://fb.watch/3i6R-BzBm0/
Reported By: Shay Azman
Edited by: Pei Zoe