The Fugee School, a small facility nestled amid the tumbledown slums of Kuala Lumpur, is helping Somali refugees to dream of a brighter future.
Ahmed Bashir was just 12 years old when he and his two younger sisters fled Mogadishu for a new life in Kuala Lumpur. In Somalia, Ahmed and his siblings had attended a religious school where they learned the Quran; in Malaysia the orphaned refugees, none of whom spoke English, found themselves free of violence, yet struggling to envision a brighter future. Today, six years later, Ahmed stands proudly at the front of his own classroom where he teaches regular lessons for primary-age children drawn from the plaster-and-plywood ghettos that are home to Kuala Lumpur’s embattled Somali community. His enthusiasm for his young students, likewise blessed with a second chance that Ahmed grasped with both hands, is infectious. “When we were in Somalia we didn’t know anything about the world and so we never thought about our future or had dreams,” he recalls. “Now I have learned that we can be whatever we want, if we believe, if we work hard and we help each other.” The catalyst for this change has been the Fugee School, a simple facility that has nevertheless turned around the lives of hundreds of young refugees. In spring 2008 a young model, television presenter and former Miss Malaysia winner named Deborah Henry was approached to front an in-house documentary for the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR. Armed with a degree in economics and political science, Henry was one of the rare pageant contestants whose pledge to make the world a better place proved more than just a sop to the judges. What she saw of Kuala Lumpur’s refugee communities would change her life, as well at that of Ahmed, and many others. “It happened almost by chance,” says Henry. “I wasn’t really aware of the refugee situation in Malaysia. Very often you see things but you think, ‘that’s the way it is, such is life’ and you leave, but this was a moment when I knew I couldn’t walk away.” Henry met four families that springtime, Ahmed’s among them. He and his sisters, along with their grandmother and cousin, had been in Malaysia for around six months. “They were all orphaned and everything was shut down,” recalls Henry. “They had no imagination, no creativity, they could barely speak or write, and they were completely closed off. It was shocking.” Determined to tutor the young family in any way she could, Henry returned to their home every week and before long it became apparent that the community was in desperate need of proper educational facilities, however rudimentary. In May 2009 Henry and a university friend, Shikeen Halibullah, formalised their efforts and the Fugee School was born, catering largely to Somali students but open to young people of all nationalities. Today, the school operates out of three converted apartments nestled among the poverty-stricken communities that they serve. “We need to be close to where the refugees live because they can’t travel for security and financial reasons,” explains Henry. “In addition, a lot of the parents are more comfortable with their kids being near them, and we need the help of the parents to make sure the children stay in school and commit to it.” The security situation is complex, and apparently intractable. As refugees, those transiting through Malaysia and on to other countries are unable to take jobs or attend official schools. Ahmed and tens of thousands of other displaced people are simply passing through on their way to resettlement elsewhere. “The main issue with refugees in Malaysia is that adults can’t work and children can’t go to school,” says Henry. “We operate in a grey space; the government knows we exist, there are many schools like ours, and they are happy we do what we do. However they’re not directly supportive, and we don’t get any funding from them. “We have had contributions from corporate sponsors and private donors,” she continues. “It’s just that nobody wants to hand over a cheque and appear on the front of the newspaper – people who understand the cause and believe in the work can very easily give money, and see the effect of it, they just can’t put on a show.” Thanks to the selfless generosity of those willing to forgo publicity, the Fugee School today teaches more than 120 children between the ages of four and 18. Subjects range from basic-level English, maths and science, to Somali language and history, art, and sports and activities including dance classes and the performing arts. At least as importantly, the school makes great efforts to build the confidence of its young charges: one programme, of which Ahmed is particularly fond, even uses an American Idol-style competition to develop students’ public speaking skills. “As well as equipping the students with academic skills and helping them to take part in extracurricular activities, it’s also about giving them confidence in who they are,” says Henry. “Once they can add and subtract and speak decent English that’s all well and good, but we need to help them develop life skills, given what they’ve been through, so that when they are resettled they are able to adapt and still build a life for themselves.” Since the inception of the Fugee School, around 40 former pupils have been resettled, the majority to the US or Australia. While Henry accepts that few will go to university, she says that they hear regularly from resettled students grateful for the lessons they learned in the cluttered former apartments of Kuala Lumpur. “A lot of these kids just want to catch up with the rest of society,” she says. “They’ve missed such a chunk of learning, and if they don’t go to university, they at least need to have the confidence to believe that they can do something. From Somalia, to Malaysia, to somewhere else: we’re preparing them for that process and trying to give them some skills they can use to deal with it.” While the ‘grey’ status of the school, and dozens of others like it across the country, makes it impossible for students to take official exams and attain recognised credentials, the school’s 10 full-time teachers are augmented by the part-time presence of high-level individuals from the NGO and corporate spheres. Often retired, these friends of the programme work pro bono, sitting with the students and assessing them on both their academic and wider life skills. Ahmed hopes that his skills will one day enable him to open his own business, wherever that may be. “When I get resettled I am hoping to finish my studies, so that I can use my skills to help the community,” he says. “The school has taught me to work hard, and to help others. It doesn’t matter how small the change, as long as I am helping people.” “So many of these kids have seen so much horror and violence,” adds Henry. “When we first asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up, they didn’t want to be anything. Now we have kids that want to be a doctor one day and a pilot the next. This is how kids should be, their ambitions changing every day.”