AN EDUCATION IS THE GREATEST GIFT YOU CAN GIVE SOMEONE
Nelson Mandela once said that education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. This is precisely what drives humanitarian Deborah Henry, who has dedicated her life to ensuring refugee children in Malaysia are given equal access to education via Fugee School, which she established in 2009 for this very reason.
Looking back, it seems that 12 years have passed in the blink of an eye. Starting off with providing basic math and English lessons to four children from the Somali refugee community, the school has grown tremendously and now provides a holistic academic education as well as creative and life skills to equip their 200 students aged 4 to 20 years old with the right tools and opportunities for a better life for themselves and their families.
In spite of the pandemic raging on, Fugee School continues to be kept open as Henry believes it’s important to keep the children mentally stimulated and to have a routine. “We’re very blessed that we’ve got a good team and so we’re able to keep it to a certain standard,” she says. “It’s also important to remember that a lot of these families, like any marginalised family, tend to live in a much smaller space and don’t have the luxury of having different rooms in the house. So if the kids did not have school and a routine, especially in challenging times like this, it would really be mentally dire for them and their families. Plus most of these families have no laptops or tablets, they only have phones which they all share, presenting challenges to online learning.”
Recognising the need to help their students pursue higher education, the school established the Fugee HiEd Scholarship, the first scholarship fund for refugees in Malaysia in line with the UNHCR’s roadmap to reach 15 per cent enrolment by 2030.
Having been in the education space for over a decade, Henry, 36, has seen the barriers and limitations that prevent an individual who has a desire to learn to do more and be more. For the refugee community in Malaysia, live here but are not allowed to work legally nor given access to education. The staunch refugee and children’s rights advocate says, “There are very deserving refugees in this country who are capable and want to pursue tertiary education. They have dreams to be an engineer, a nurse, teacher or businessman. But it was hard to figure out where to go, as a lot of places don’t accept refugees. Plus it’s expensive, and they don’t have money.”
With a goal to sponsor five students, they’re hoping to raise around RM160,000 this year. When talking to their corporate partners, Henry tells them that investing in a person is about investing in change for tomorrow. “I really do believe hugely in education. It’s the greatest gift you can give someone. You’re teaching them self-reliance, you’re empowering them to then further empower their family, and very often when somebody gets a tertiary degree, chances are their kids will end up going to college or university as well. So really, you’re not helping one life, you’re changing outcomes for generations to come.”
She recalls those early days when she first started Fugee School, only 24 then. Armed with a political science and economics degree, her exposure to the Miss Malaysia World beauty pageant led her to discover her calling in helping the refugee community and their children. “The idea that we can live in a world with so much, yet people literally live with less than little, seemed very unfair to me,” she says. “That’s me, I see something I think that needs to change and I do it and figure things out along the way. Fast forward 11 years, it’s 2021 and I’m still here having the same conversation. It’s frustrating, it’s exhausting, it’s stressful. But when you see the human life that benefits from it...”
Change doesn’t necessarily happen in your lifetime, she says. You sow the seeds for what’s to come. And that’s exactly what Henry is talking about when investing in change for tomorrow.
She has seen first-hand how education has broken barriers for refugee families, giving them a semblance of hope and opportunity. “These refugee children in Malaysia, they’re not going to live here forever; they’re going to get resettled to another country or they’re going back to their countries, such as Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Myanmar; so we need to equip them to think differently. They’re going to be the peacebuilders, they’re going to be the ones to start new businesses and lift their people out of poverty.”
Fully aware of the xenophobic sentiments surrounding the refugees, Henry says we need to stop seeing them as illegals and quit the fear-mongering as it only leads to animosity, aggression, and violence. “We have to stop seeing everything through race, religion or nationality—this is a humanity issue. When you understand that refugees fled because of persecution and war, quite frankly you and I would do the same thing if we were in that situation.”
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