Community schools offer refugee kids a way out of poverty

Text by Susan Tam
Photos by Kamal Sellehuddin

Community schools in Malaysia offer a necessary service to educate refugee children and teenagers as these young people have no access to the country’s national school system.

“These students want to learn. The more you give them, the more they want,” explains Debra Tapscott, who is the headmaster and general manager of IDEAS Academy in Kuala Lumpur.


The academy is a secondary learning centre for the underprivileged youth in Kuala Lumpur, set up as a joint venture between the Institute for Democratic and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) and refugee movement, Stichting Young Refugee Cause in the Netherlands.

IDEAS Academy is one the few centres in Malaysia that offer secondary education to children of refugee parents, asylum seekers, stateless children and young people. Government records in 2014 show that are over 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers living in Malaysia. Refugees leave their home countries to escape war or discriminatory practices and arrive from neighbouring Myanmar or as far as Afghanistan. They seek a better life in Malaysia, seen as affluent and one of the remaining few safe havens in the region.

Tapscott says schooling at a secondary level is important because, “Education is the way to change their future, you might be able to do something in primary language centre, but after that you must have secondary education, otherwise you will be in that vicious circle of poverty.” Without secondary learning opportunities, most teenagers drop out of school to work to help supplement their family’s income.

She explains that it was these challenging situations that gives refugee students the resillience they show in class. “The students are very appreciative of what the community is doing. When we had to assemble desks and chairs (when the school moved to its new premise), there was none of that, “Oh I’m so tired, so we have to do this,” attitude from the children.”

She adds that companies such as IKEA, Philips Malaysia, the Malaysian Association of the Netherlands and many other organisations have contributed to the academy. Students or their parents pay a small school fee of RM20 fee a month, so they can commit to staying in school.

But, attendance is never an issue as these students look forward to learning, and they learn fast. “They are very adaptable kids, I’ve read a lot of stories of refugees. And because of the

conditions they have to go through, their problem solving and thinking skills are different than other students. They seem to handle change more easily,” explains Tapscott.

The academy follows a Cambridge syllabus and is looking to expand its classes from 60 students to 300 over the next two to three years. Currently, the school is teaching 12 to 15-year old students from Myanmar, Afghanistan and Pakistan. “We have experienced teachers with some 15 years teaching experience, as well as volunteers. We’re looking for volunteers to help us teach or run activities.”   Some of the areas being offered under their life skills subject include learning about social skills, building confidence or involve team-building activities.

In Malaysia refugee children are not allowed to enrol in national schools because they simply do not have a legal status or “right” to remain in this country. The Malaysian government does not recognise refugees, and has not signed the UN Convention on Refugees, and in fact stated this year that it would not sign any of these international protocols, citing difficulty in managing the refugee issues.

By not signing the treaty, Malaysia does not need to meet its obligations, and thus have no formal and legal framework to manage refugees, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. The groups stay in Malaysia until their resettlement process to a third country such as the United States is completed, but that process can take years.

In the mean time, institutions such as IDEAS academy and UN refugee agency United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), provides support for these communities. UNHCR spokesperson Yante Ismail explains that in Malaysia, there are over 33,00 refugee children below the age of 18 registered with UNHCR.

“Some 21,880 of these children are of school-going age. However, it is estimated that only some 28 per cent of refugee children who are of school-going age have access to any kind of education programmes.”

Yante says refugee children obtain educations via an informal parallel system of 126 community-based learning centres, such as IDEAS Academy.

“The schools are operated by NGOs, and over 100 are run by the communities themselves with support from NGOs, faith-based organisations and other stakeholders,” she says, adding that the scope and reach of these classes are largely restricted by a lack of resources, including qualified teachers.

Yante says UNHCR enhances access to, and quality of, education by providing some grants to community learning centres, teacher training and compensation, as well as continued coordination of various ad-hoc support to the learning centres.

However, a community school coordinator admitted that in August 2015, they were instructed to cut their resources because UNHCR itself has reduced support on materials or other forms of resources to aid these centres.

“Without resources, teachers and learning materials, some centres may have to close, leaving these children without any education. How can they get out of poverty then?” he adds. This coordinator manages the daily operations of a primary learning centre in Kuala Lumpur.

Meanwhile, another principal of a refugee learning centre shared his knowledge of finance cuts too from the UN agency, adding that refugee schools are going to “have great difficulty”. Both staff from these schools asked to be unnamed.

To the budget cuts, Yante explains that globally, UNHCR faces an unprecedented number of simultaneous emergencies. “Its ability to provide protection and assistance for people of concern is severely stretched and required the Organisation to review it global operations and priorities.”

She explains that in Malaysia, UNHCR reviewed its entire operations to ensure that, within the dramatic funding and resource challenges faced, it is able to prioritise protection to those groups and individuals most in need of international protection under its Mandate.

Yante admits that this will have an impact on UNHCR’s health, education, and livelihoods programmes which have also been realigned to assist the most vulnerable groups.

UNHCR assists refugees, asylum seekers, stateless individuals and displaced communities, and wants to ensure that all individuals have the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another country, or find ways to return home voluntarily.

“In terms of education, UNHCR will prioritise funding to those most in need out of an already vulnerable group, but will continue to solicit financial and in-kind support for learning centres from private sector and private individuals,” she says.

But, she calls upon the Malaysian government to be responsible for refugee protection as UNHCR alone cannot carry the responsibility of refugee protection. UNHCR is also committed to support civil society and community-based organisations to find greater levels of self-reliance and agency to assist and protect refugees.


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