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Lessons from Volunteering at the Myanmar Refugee School in Malaysia

Malaysia 0

By Angelina, YES Abroad 2011-2012, Malaysia

This year I have been assisting at the Dignity for Children's foundation school. The school was started by two missionaries in 1999 to reach out to the refugees arriving from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Iran and various other countries. Now, over 600 children attend their school, ranging in age from 3 to 18. I will be volunteering and teaching two days a week for three months.

The area of Malaysia where the school is located is called Sentul and is very different from where I live. It is located in a more rural area and the streets are quieter, and lined with cute Indian stalls selling flower chains and food. As I walk to the school, I pass a Sikh Temple. From what others have told me, Sikh Temples are very special because they welcome every single person that stops by with warm greetings and food. I don't know much about Sikhism but their temple is very beautiful and there are several kids at my school that practice Sikhism so hopefully I can learn more about it soon. Today when I reached the school, the first session had just begun. Earlier this week, the kids had started their exams in various subjects, including math, Bahasa Melayu, English and culture, but many of them had not yet completed them. The director of the pre-school put me in charge of gathering all the kids that were unable to complete their exams and personally work with them to help them to understand the questions.

It was at first slightly challenging, because apart from the language barrier, the exams were quite hard for their age group. Many of them were having trouble with the English section so I focused on studying English the majority of the time. When the end of their session approached, I was amazed to see all of the children fully engaged in cleaning their small classroom. And not only cleaning like a normal toddler would but using mops and buckets, dusting their bookshelves, and aligning everything neatly.

As the second session kids trickled in, I was put in charge of looking over all the first session kids who had not been picked up yet. This was easy to do because all the children loved reading books together. I had all the children sit in a circle and we read several books together before they left. In the second session I again helped the children with their exams and also gave a mini math lesson to a group of children.

Throughout the day, I noticed that many of the children were speaking Bahasa Melayu and wondered why they were attending a refugee school if they were Malaysian. After inquiring about this, I learned that in Malaysia the government has a rule restricting children whose parents aren’t Malaysian from attending local schools. This means that even if you were born in Malaysia and know it as your only home, you can’t attend local schools if your parents weren’t born in Malaysia.

I feel that I am growing closer to the children and am getting better every day at remembering their names. I can’t wait to see all their smiling faces again. Overall, I have had such a fantastic time and am so thankful I’m able to have this amazing opportunity!