In an ideal world, financial aid and social services for the needy wouldn’t be segregated into those for adults and children as if the two were unrelated. In an ideal world, all children would be entitled to education, and march on to become teachers, chefs, doctors, lawyers, politicians, activists, musicians, volunteers or whoever they aspire to be. In an ideal world, Aini’s future wouldn’t be cut short by her legal status; she wouldn’t need to cope with the fear of being enveloped in a contemptuous society that questions her roots. But she is a daughter of a Rohingya refugee, a young, bubbly girl who, like many hundred others, wishes to settle in her adopted country and start fresh with a clean slate.
To some, education promotes an opportunity to experience intellectual awakening, a springboard to multiply one’s earning power. To the children of the Rohingya refugees in Malaysia, education is a ticket to lift their livelihoods and shake off the nagging insecurity of living without papers. It’s a predicament that roiled Mike Tan, who set up Floating Children, a self-funded school established in the quarters of NGO Myanmar Ethnic Rohingyas Human Rights Organization Malaysia (MERHROM) located in an unmarked, decrepit commercial building in Cheras.
Mike, a fine arts visual artist based in New York, began researching for active NGOs working with Rohingya refugees in KL after reading about the migrant crisis last year, as well as the discovery of mass graves in the north of Malaysia. ‘MERHROM was clearly an authority on the crisis with decades of experience with the refugee community in Malaysia. I met up with Zafar Ahmad, the president, and got to know the community better. I saw the refugee children wandering in to MERHROM to ask for some change to buy snacks, and they didn’t seem to have anywhere to go on a weekday afternoon. That’s when I decided to help MERHROM with a long-term plan to educate the children.’
Photo: Daniel Chan
'Education is a ticket to lift their livelihoods and shake off the nagging insecurity of living without papers'
MERHROM was holding sporadic Islamic lessons until Mike introduced English and Mathematics classes to provide a slightly more rounded curriculum. He hired Nazri Mazlan as the education co-ordinator of Floating Children, who works with a group of volunteers to devise a more rigorous and effective syllabus to hone not only the children’s cognitive skills but a curious frame of mind. ‘We’re trying to equip these children with a basic educational background, and on top of that, a template for them to better understand the turbulent world around them,’ says Nazri.
The centre – a bare room with three rows of desks and just a white board – was strategically set up across a flat inhabited by Rohingya refugees. The parents, though still sceptical about the centre and the long-term benefits of the programme, would sometimes allow their children (aged between eight and 11) to show up for the lessons. But you won’t find any teens at the centre. Old enough to eke out a living, they’re forced to work out of desperation, whether to help their parents man small businesses or make crafts to be sold throughout the day.
No refugee wants their children to recapitulate their unfortunate fate, but hardscrabble poverty and unemployment are coercing the young ones to take up adult economic roles very early in their lives. ‘Which is why it’s part of our plan to show the parents the value of a proper education; we encourage the children to show their parents the progress they’ve made, be it their multiplication skills or the drawings they’ve created. In the long term, if we can show the parents a viable path towards sustained independence for their children through the programme, they will be more committed,’ says Mike.
Kids with a higher academic potential like Ayub – who only knew a handful of alphabets before – can now name the days of the week in English. But not all children are so lucky – Rina had to stay at home to care for her immobilised mother who was struck by a car. One may argue that education isn’t a turnkey solution to the refugee crisis or poverty, but for a child like Rina, the only way to fight the cycle that plagues her family might just be through the school gates.
Photo: Daniel Chan
A social message through art
Photography has always been a powerful agent to convey the realities of conflict but it can also reignite the awareness of a story whose attention has since long drifted. We have a strong tendency to empathise with the hopeless, the tragic and the acrimony – just look at the Rohingya refugee photos splashed across mainstream media last year. But Mike, using his skills to highlight the plight of Rohingya refugees through art, chooses to disarm viewers with a gentler theme: children’s innocence. His visual project ‘Double Exposure’, which can be viewed on Floating Children’s website, contrasts official portraits of the Rohingya children with drawings they make based on their experience and imagination. ‘These children have been exposed to more violence and trauma than the average child. And that comes across as common themes in their drawings… Many of them draw boats adrift at sea, some with nightmarish stick figures afloat and being rescued, pointing directly to the precarious migration paths their families undertook to flee the genocide in Burma.’
Some of the younger kids draw similar things to what you’d expect from a typical child, like flowers, Superman signs and squiggly lines. But a pervasive terror and sadness from prolonged adversity was evident among the children’s drawing. Mike explains, ‘There was a chilling drawing of a crime scene this little boy made. It was a bird’s-eye view of a house with a family sleeping soundly inside. A stick figure with hearts for eyes is outside holding a gun while a body lies on the ground with a pool of blood spreading out. There’s something deeply unsettling about this drawing even in its abstract form. Something about it felt authentic, and suggested it came from personal experience.’ All the photographs of the project are denuded of clear narrative and captions as they’re meant to be transformative in terms of repositioning the formal meaning of a passport photograph.
Photo: Daniel Chan
Rallying for local support
The challenging economic outlook and limited resources have made it more difficult for Floating Children to move forward. MERHROM was four months behind their rent payment until Mike stepped in at the last minute to pay off the landlord. ‘The managers of MERHROM – both Zafar and his brother Rafik – are not policy-makers or activists by trade. I think the government and the UN can be doing far more for these refugees if they weren’t constrained by geopolitical considerations, and were pressured more by the local populace,’ says Mike. ‘On a simplistic level, we should be vetting these refugees more thoroughly in order to understand the value they could provide to society at large. Many of them are young, law-abiding and willing to work hard so why are we shunning them to the fringes of society?’
Many countries in Southeast Asia including Malaysia have not signed the UN Convention on Refugees. What this means is that all refugees are considered undocumented migrants, who are ineligible for employment, education and government health services. Sure, we can assist the refugees through donations but more compassionate laws such as recognising the status of refugees and not subjecting them to appalling treatment in detention centres, extending public education to refugee children, medical aid, etc, must be pushed through. The future of refugee children is stranded amidst a sea of harsh policies – only a sustained global effort can keep their dreams afloat.
*The names of children in the article have been changed
For more info, visit floatingchildren.com.