Malaysian Group on a Mission to Teach Refugee Women to Read and Write

(AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Seated on the floor in the room are a few students, notably women, who are reciting the alphabet; but these aren’t ordinary students, they are refugee women in Malaysia and they are learning to read and write in both Malay and English for the first time.

Conducted weekly at a rather gloomy room outside Kuala Lumpur, classes are led by the Women for Refugees group. The group was formed in September by two law students who wanted to empower them to be more than the portrayable wife by helping with their literacy and also with their integration into the local community.

“I don’t know even know my ABCs, but now I am learning,” Zaleha Abdul, 54, a Muslim Rohingya refugee, said in an interview with the Associated Press, as she struggled to remember the alphabet during a class last month. She said she wants to be more independent when going shopping or anywhere else.

Many refugee women, Zaleha among them, have picked up the local language but are still only confined to surroundings that they are familiar with as they don’t know how to read or write.

Arissa Jemaima Ikram Ismail, was a volunteer with a relief agency at first in Selayang and aimed to help to uplift women in this community. 

She and fellow law student Davina Devarajaan then met with the women who to their surprise, wanted to learn English and Malay. Arissa also said that education if often viewed as a low priority for refugee women.

Women for Refugees was then formed and they proceeded to recruit teachers via Instagram. Having about 20 volunteers now, the group is offering two-hour literacy classes in both English and Malay in a two-story block that has up to 50 families.

“It was very essential for us to not pitch the refugee women as a charity, where they are constantly requiring external aid,” Arissa said. “We want to equip them with the necessary skills so that they can sustain themselves … and contribute back to the community.”

Although open to all migrant women, majority of the students are from Myanmar and Indonesia. Davina hopes to expand to other neighbourhoods in the future and also to include technical skills that could lead to more opportunities for an income.

She also added that teaching still goes on with pre-recorded lessons due to the country’s coronavirus crisis; they were being viewed on three shared laptops while live classes were still being conducted once a week for older migrant children.

As the pandemic subsides, she would also “love to integrate more volunteers … to actually come and teach them and have this very community-based integration between” the women and the locals, whom many view migrants as a burden on the country’s resources and healthcare system.

Arisssa’s group may not be the first that is offering literacy course, but it is the only few that does this while focusing on women. Almost 178,000 refugees and asylum seekers are registered with the United Nations High Commission of Refugees, and many of them are left out educationally.

Shahidah Salamatulah, 38, was among three women at that time learning how to communicate in English when needing to seek treatment at a medical clinic. 

Shahidah, a Muslim from Myanmar and a mother of two, was preparing for a new life abroad. She was called for interviews three times last year by the UNHCR on possible resettlements, but the coronavirus pandemic has put all that to an unscheduled and timely halt.

“English is important for us … when we go overseas we will need English,” she told the Associated Press.

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