A 12-year-old boy stands before his parents—a gun is placed in his hands. He is told to shoot his two confused parents or he will die. He takes a deep breath. Grabs the gun. He decides to push the tip of the weapon against his own head—he shoots. This is one of the many stories Rhonda, a caring expat has to share. She has worked with the refugees for 9 years and is instrumental in providing education to the children in the community. Rhonda is the founder of the Chin Student Organisation.
“I thought I would be killed,” said Peter in a soft voice, he is head teacher at the Sentul School for Chins, The others interviewed are the same, telling their own harrowing but very real stories. Peter explained how this choice was not even his to make—it was a matter of life or death. However, the all-encompassing fear he felt in Myanmar lives on here in Malaysia. Daust Hlei Rem hesitantly talks about how she was exploited because “some of the soldiers asked me to carry their big luggage.” However, she seemed to have escaped unscathed from exploitative soldiers, unfortunately this isn’t the case for most women in Myanmar. Rhonda explained how the soldiers “basically pillage everything, they would take the crops, rape the girls, take the 12 year old boys and put them into the military.” Things look and continue looking bleak for Christians in Myanmar. This only worsened when the military junta took control of the government. 2% of the population is Muslim, 5% is Christian. All who refuse to convert to Buddhism are killed. The migration of Burmese people is a pilgrimage by those who will fight for their religion, their faith—even if it means that they might die trying. Buddhists have attempted to take a stand against the militant government; however, they are continuously shot down and refused a voice. Peter concludes his thoughts with, “In Myanmar we are marginalized. We are unwanted. A kind of bitterness remains in our hearts, we can’t go back because the bitterness is deep inside of us. We don’t believe them anymore.”
The situation in Myanmar is one seldom discussed, yet one that continues to haunt those who have lived under these conditions. There are currently 144,380 refugees registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia, excluding those who remain unregistered and unrecognized. The refugees had looked to Malaysia for refuge from the religious persecution they were facing ; they have been rudely awakened. Rhonda mentioned that two girls were walking to church on Easter Sunday. One was ten years old, the other fourteen. Police arrived and arrested them for merely being refugees. They spent that day in prison praying that someone would be able to afford their release. On top of this discrimination, they also face financial instability that renders them helpless. “They are just asylum seekers sort of in a stateless position” says Anja Orttmann who has helped the Chin refugee students for several years. “We are in fear whenever we move, we are in fear. Even when we are in our house we are still in fear. They can come and catch us anytime” said Peter, voicing the concerns of most asylum-seekers.
He finally escaped. The father of a family of five had somehow managed to afford the journey from Myanmar to Malaysia, costing MYR 5000. He immediately began working in order to bring over his wife. Since they have reunited, they both have continued to work to afford the passage of their three children left behind, who are being cared for by their grandparents. As the years progressed, the grandparents passed, leaving two of the children in an orphanage, and the oldest, who is only six-years-old as a maid in a Burmese home. She is expected to cook, clean and look after the family. Despite her lack of opportunity she bore on, she is fearlessly taking on responsibilities. Yet one day, as she was cleaning the windows, she fell, leaving her face bloodied and bruised, along with teeth that never recovered. The Burmese family refused to pay too much attention, and she was expected to continue working. Eventually, the whole village gathered and kidnapped her from the house that quite literally broke her. Rhonda, the woman behind five Chin schools continues with this tragic story: “So she is in a truck, sitting underneath the truck seat in a box with little holes drawn in so that she could breathe, with one little bottle of water for days. It had been years since she had seen her father. She is released from this box. She sees this man approaching her, something flicked and she remembered him.”
In a series of emotional interviews Dawt Khen, the most talkative of the women, said, “We hid in darkness, without torches, we weren’t allowed to see each other.” She then described how the transition from Myanmar to Malaysia meant weeks on end in a jungle hiding from those who could catch and imprison them. Many were left behind because of the costs or circumstances but those who made it are still recovering from the mental and physical wounds that come with the journey.
“We are unpaid here, I am fully sacrificed here. I lay on the floor to sleep, we don’t get any money. In Myanmar our parents are very poor so we have to consider them. We sacrifice a lot for the 17 kids at this school. We don’t have time to look after our families. We can’t even talk to them on the phone because there is no money.” Peter, along with the other 18 teachers that work in the 5 schools, receives a total of 100MYR a month. This is $25.75USD. To put this in perspective an average student at ISKL (International School of Kuala Lumpur) receives 70-100MYR per week just for lunch. Anja Orttmann described the situation as “ a gray zone for refugees, they are officially not allowed to work but there are some jobs that they take and people just close their eyes.” The fee for the Chin schools is 40RM a month but even this is a struggle for parents or children who can only get low paying jobs. Rhonda told me about one girl in particular, a 14-year-old who works in Times Square Mall selling sunglasses to help support her 13-year-old brother. Children and parents have to face the harsh realities of a world keen on abusing the desperation that refugees face. Rhonda is the woman behind all of the funding, totalling 300,000MYR per year, or $9,000 US dollars– collected from fundraisers, or even straight from her own pocket. Funding from the UNHCR ended in September because of more pressing matters, including relief for Syrian refugees. This however left no compensation for the teachers, forcing Rhonda to pay the teachers salaries herself. “I have to pay the water bills, the gas problems, I have to pay for rice and chicken, you know everything else.” While there are certain churches that help out, it is not enough support for the Chin schools. At one point she simply said “I need funds to keep on going because I can’t just close another school down and abandon these children that have no home.”
“This work is worth it for us. It has a value. When we sacrifice ourselves we close our eyes, bite our tongues, grind our teeth, we sometimes cry because we consider our families,” said Peter on being a teacher. All of the teachers for the Chin schools are paid virtually nothing, yet they stay and do the best they can. They know that despite their own desperate situations they are the only hope for the children who rely on the education they provide. Peter talks about how every time he was about to leave, the kids would rush out and hold his arm begging him to stay–to teach them. Above all, these children have an immense thirst for knowledge. Success in school is their only way out of poverty, and their only chance at supporting their family. ISKL facilitates this by teaching these children English once a week, which proves extremely helpful because they don’t have the resources at their own schools. Mr. Myers is the head teacher for these weekly lessons and has produced a remarkable book published with stories written by the Chins. “The children are at the mercy of people, good people or bad people, so hopefully you have a good amount of good people,” he says.
This is what these children need, more support in terms of volunteers and quite simply awareness. The Sentul School was about to close because of the lack of funding, yet was miraculously saved by Peter, who said that he marched into the meeting and exclaimed “You cannot close Sentul School I am the head teacher here!”
“If we don’t raise our hands and raise our voices how will their future look like?” Peter has been a huge part of the Sentul School, and his passion and dedication to the education of the kids somehow overcame language barriers. This misconception exists because these kids come from rough backgrounds and live in harsh conditions, assuming that they have no future. This is simply wrong. Rhonda could hardly contain the smile on her face as she talks about all of the children she works with. They started with virtually nothing, yet some resettled to America, where they worked hard and had more motivation than anybody, managing to get scholarships to schools they never would have dreamed of. “I have a girl that is representing her state as a cheerleader, you know she is like 40kg at the top of the pyramid doing like back somersaults, you know amazing! If she hadn’t had an education with us and then gone to America how would she ever have achieved her dream to become a cheerleader. There is a sense of pride in knowing that these kids are somehow getting the opportunities that every human deserves.” Rhonda also talks about how if you walk around in a room of her students, they all have dreams to be “noble” professions. An 11-year-old girl at the school revealed that she wanted to become a doctor because that way, she could help everyone. While there are a lot of positive results and prospects for the future, there are also many hardships ahead.
All of the refugees registered with the UNHCR are waiting and wondering when they will be resettled to America or any first world country. Until then, things look uncertain. Malaysia is merely a host country that is not currently sufficiently equipped to help the refugees. It is very much like Mr. Myers said, “You go and expect everyone to be miserable just because of their situation, and then you find that these kids are laughing and playing.”