Yayasan Geutanyoe

Rebecca’s story: Two weeks teaching at the Rohingya Peace Institute

I have just said goodbye to the kids at RPI (Rohingya Peace Institute) in Kuala Lumpur for the last time. I have been so busy for the last two weeks planning lessons, preparing crafts and teaching the kids and adults that I hadn’t prepared myself for quite how upset I would feel to say goodbye.

RPI has around 17 children registered at the school, with more wanting to join the tiny two-room school each day. For many of these children it is their first taste of education. Whether they were born in Myanmar, where the Rohingya are a persecuted Muslim minority and a vast stateless group (due to the Myanmar government not recognising them as citizens), or if they were born as first generation refugees in Malaysia, where they are not officially recognised as refugees by the government (owning to the fact Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention), then they have not been entitled to state sponsored education in either country.

The kids approach learning with an electric energy, hunger and eagerness. In the little time I have been here we have worked on English phonics and it has been a great joy to witness them developing their sounds, pronunciation and even start reading blended words in English. They have loved colouring and creating craft animals for each letter, not something they always get to do. I will miss them all dearly.

Even with RPI available, these children still face barriers to education. RPI charges only 50 Ringgit for registration (SGD $16.45/ USD $12.14) which is an affordable amount, however, many of the parents do not have access to private transport, like a motorbike and cannot afford public transport, so can’t bring their children to school everyday. Sometimes, the teachers try to pick children up on their motorbikes to bring to school but aren’t able to get around everyone.

In the evenings, after gruelling, hard work in the day times, the adults drag themselves to English lessons with as much attentiveness and eagerness to learn as the children. It is with many members of this group that you start to see the outcomes of a lifetime lack of education. Very small things I have always taken for granted- students knowing a gap on a worksheet means you fill something in there, knowing how to make lists, following the numerical order of questions- are a genuine struggle for these adult students who have probably never been faced with a worksheet before let alone in a foreign language! But, again, in the little time I have been working with them, I have seem them develop in confidence and start using the grammar and language we have covered.

The adults also serve as a stark reminder of what a lack of education can lead to. In Malaysia, as they are effectively a semi-tolerated group of illegal migrants (again as the government does not recognise them as refugees), they are mostly engaged as cheap labour on construction sites. Their ‘illegal’ status leaves them vulnerable to exploitation, open to arrest and deportation at any time and with no avenue for complaint or appeal against mistreatment. Without education they struggle to understand the local language, read documents, know their rights and make themselves understood and with measly earnings they struggle to feed their families, pay their rent and meet inevitable medical bills (charged at the same high rate as any foreigner in Malaysia).

The adult generation’s plight offers a glimpse of the destiny of these children with no education. This is why RPI is vital to this community and exactly the motivation behind setting the school up in the first place- the desperate hope of a better future for them.

I have unending respect for the individuals who established and run RPI. Latif, a Rohingya refugee himself living in KL, started RPI in 2016 for his local community along with the help of Nurul Ain (a busy mother of two who graciously takes on teaching Malay and Arts as well as caring for her own family), Hasson, Hanif and Ustad (among others I have not met) who all combined caring for the children, feeding and teaching them.

When I think about the mammoth task of establishing and running a school, I feel overwhelmed. But these people, fuelled by their desire to improve the chances for their own community and using the little personal finances they have, have made themselves responsible for teaching, accounting, fundraising, curriculum development, community engagement and school administration, to name just a few tasks they are juggling. Their sleepless nights worrying about how they will pay the rent or buy the food for the next week and month is plain to see on all their faces. They are entirely dependent on private individuals’ donations, which have been generously offered by several individuals here in Malaysia, Singapore and many other countries thanks to the connections the school has made. However, it is a constant concern about where the money they need to keep running is going to come from.

It is so important that RPI continues its work and there is so much more to be achieved. The children need somewhere to go everyday, they need structure. At a very basic level, they need to be fed. They need learn to value themselves when every country they have lived in has valued them so little they have not even recognised them as citizens. They need to engage their brains, expand their knowledge and horizons and imagine a better future for themselves than the world is currently offering.

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