With Sheer Will And Determination, Rohingya Boy Reaches For The Stars

Zaid is a 16 year-old Rohingya refugee from Myanmar. He believes an education will allow him to strive for a hopeful future for himself and others.


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As told to Krisha Vishinpir, UNHCR Kuala Lumpur.

My name is Zaid. I am 16 years old. I am a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar. My mother and I left Myanmar over three years ago when it was no longer safe for us there. We risked our lives to cross the sea in a small rickety boat in order to reach safety.

I am now a student at an informal learning centre for refugees in Kuala Lumpur, and at this time, I am hopeful for my future. But it has been a long and difficult journey for me to get here. Even during my journey to reach Kuala Lumpur when we fled Myanmar, there were times that I thought I might not survive.

I was detained for six months when I first arrived. By the time I was released, I had lost so much weight and could barely walk from sheer weakness and exhaustion. I no longer looked human.

It took me a full year to recover both physically and psychologically from the ordeal but I was determined to get better so that I could start going to school. Within a year I was able to walk and run again and my father finally agreed to let me attend the nearest refugee school to where I lived.

Starting school in Malaysia was not easy for me.

The schools in my neighbourhood are public schools. As a refugee, I cannot attend them.  Instead, I had to travel much further away to the nearest refugee learning centre. The trip would cost me RM20 for a taxi because at the time, I did not know how to take a bus. I could not understand English or Malay to find my way.

Eventually, I learnt to take a bus. Sometimes the bus drivers were nice, and allow me to pay the student fee of 50 sen. But sometimes, even though I was in my school uniform, they would insist I pay RM2 because they knew I was not local. It upsets me to think of what they did. I was only a child, and yet they would do that to me.

Those first few months really put a strain on my family as my father had also lost his job at that time. I remember that there were days we would not even have enough money to eat, just so that my parents could save that money for me to go to school the next day. There were many times I would even have to beg strangers at the bus stop for spare change just so that I could have enough to get back home.

The financial burden was a tough load to bear, and I felt so guilty. I even considered dropping out of school to work instead, but I knew that an education was too important.

Sometimes I was bullied by the local school boys. They would pick on me at the bus stop. Once, they forced me off the bus and beat me up till I fell to the ground. They even hit my head. I did not have enough money to go back home but a kind student from a nearby school gave me a bit of money.

But I wanted to study, and so I stayed in school. The classes were conducted in Malay and at the start, I struggled to understand the lessons. But within three months I began to find it easier. I was determined to do well because I felt that if I received good grades in school, people would be more willing to help a boy like me. Now, all my teachers like me and I’m the top student in my school.

I try to do well in school because I want to be something in the future. Other people in my community are not able to even write their name in English. I really do not want to end up like that. My father wants me to become ‘someone’ - a person who is able to stand for the community and for the poor people in this world. He wants me to be a doctor so that I do not get involved with the wrong crowd and end up turning to a life of crime.

Eventually, I would like to return to Myanmar when it is safer so that I can help my community. But until that time, I am grateful for everything Malaysia has done for me. Who knows what would have happened to me or where I would have gone otherwise. Malaysia has been kind to me and it has given me the opportunity to study. Malaysia has saved me.

I believe that my life is in my own hands and if I continue to excel in school, I will not need to look to others, others will look to me instead.

Education is really important to refugees like me. When I am able to get an education, I can strive for what I want in the future. Many people in my community are illiterate. They have to constantly depend on others to help them. I believe that my life is in my own hands and if I continue to excel in school, I will not need to look to others, others will look to me instead.

There are some 150,000 refugees registered with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Malaysia, the majority being those who have fled complex human rights abuses in Myanmar.

Refugees have no access to the national education system, compelling UNHCR, its NGO partners, and refugee communities themselves to support a parallel system of education through informal community-run learning centres for refugees.

There are now more than 120 community learning centres throughout Malaysia, largely run by refugees themselves with the support of volunteers and others. Most of these learning centres struggle with limited funding and overcrowded classrooms with few resources. Other challenges include a high turnover of teachers, students who drop out for financial or cultural reasons, and limited opportunities for higher education.