It’s an impossible situation where ever they go. In their home country, Myanmar, where they’ve lived for hundreds of years, they’re told “Go Home!” They’re stateless, not allowed to work, and blamed for society’s ills. So they escape, only to find they’re still stateless. Some are sold into slavery, or worse, held for ransom. Lucky ones find work in the informal economy, where safety is lax and pay is low. Still, they are resented for being immigrants. Still they hear, “Go Home!”
Many of the Rohingya refugees who’ve settled on Penang Island send their children to the Sekolah Damai Minden, or ‘School of Peace’. Approximately 50 children are enrolled. REPUSM*, sponsors the school, and funds it with sporadic private donations plus tuition fees of RM50/student/month paid by Rohingya parents. In 2014, the school operated on a budget of $18k USD, nearly half of which came from refugee families themselves.
One third of the budget covers rent, and the rest pays woefully under-market-rate teacher salaries. They’re paid so little, that for all intents and purposes, they could be considered volunteers like me. However, unlike me, they’re trained and accredited teaching professionals. They know what they’re doing. They should be paid adequately.
It would be an understatement to say the school is underfunded. If anything, this school is a place-holder, a stop gap measure until real funds can be found. Even so, it’s remarkable how effective the teachers are. The kids are surprisingly good at math, and impressively adept at speaking Bahasa Malay, which is not their native tongue. One teacher instructs 40 students while I, a two-day a week part-time volunteer, take my ten students upstairs to instruct them in English. I have no teaching credentials, and the kids drive me monkey-bananas some days. And yet the administrator of the school asked if I could volunteer as full time teacher. Yeah – they’re desperate.
As far as I can tell, having worked at the school for about a month now, the curriculum falls short of providing a path to an adequate high school diploma, much less a path to university. And that’s really sad, because the kids here at the School of Peace are smart, eager and full of energy. Given the proper direction and instruction, they have the potential to lead healthy happy highly-educated lives where any nation would consider themselves lucky and blessed to have them as citizens.
After my shift the other day, I met up with my friend at his shop. He asked why I was in the neighborhood, so I explained about my volunteer work with the School of Peace. He shook his head. “As far as I’m concerned, all of these immigrants should just go back home.”
I was surprised. In my experience, he’s always been an affable and caring guy. I asked him to explain.
“Well, I employed a few immigrants a while back. Here’s the thing, you give them an inch and they take a mile.”
Alarm bells went off in my head. I’ve always thought that was a bullshit phrase. It’s full of negativity and suspicion. So I asked for a specific example.
He thought a moment. “Well, I employed a few of these guys a while back. They said they wanted more money and I declined. Then I discovered they were stealing from me.”
He is quick to judge an entire group of people on the actions of two men. And this is the problem. Unfortunately we all do this to some degree; we instantly ascribe the bad behavior of a few to an entire group. In his case, he believes all immigrants are bad. In the case of extremist Myanmar Buddhists, all Rohingya are bad. If only we humans weren’t so quick to judge an entire people based upon the actions of a few, we perhaps wouldn’t create such impossible situations for people who’ve committed no crime outside of being members of some group.
Today I hear there’s a boat nearby with Rohingya refugees. If they land in Malaysia, where will they go? With a local population who believes immigrants should just ‘go home’, I’ve no idea. All I know to do is to keep working at the The School of Peace. I’m working on setting up a tax deductible charitable organization so that my fellow Americans, should they be so inclined, can make tax-deductible donations. Maybe we can raise enough funds and provide at least one place on this earth where the kids of these refugees feel welcome and cared for. We can start there.
*REPUSM = Department for Research for Education and Peace at University Sans Malaysia