Rohingya refugee beats the odds to get schooling in Malaysia
Eighteen-year-old Rohingya refugee Shamshidah did not set foot inside a classroom until she was well into her teens, and today she is still beating the odds against her getting an education.
“I started my education when I was 14 because there was no school for me to go to,” said the youngster, who attends an informal school each day in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur with her 15-year-old sister, Yasmin.
Child refugees such as Shamshidah frequently have their education disrupted after they are uprooted from home and have to find their way with their families in the country that shelters them, although the reception they receive varies.
In Malaysia, where there are 150,000 refugees registered with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, refugees do not have legal status.
As such, Rohingya children – who are from a conservative Muslim minority whose families fled violence in Myanmar more than 10 years ago -- are denied access to public education, compelling UNHCR, its NGO partners and the refugee communities themselves to support a parallel school system.
"My friends don’t go to school ... I feel sorry for them."
Her late start means that Shamshidah studies in a primary-level class with younger students, where they learn English, maths and science. While she is lagging behind her age group, she nevertheless appreciates the chance to study. “I don’t mind,” she said. “I hope to go on to secondary school and learn computers.”
The challenges she faces are all too common. According to a report by UNHCR, only 50 per cent of refugee children worldwide are enrolled in primary school, 22 per cent in secondary, and one per cent in tertiary education.
For Rohingya children in Malaysia, the outlook is even worse. As of December 2016, just over a third - 39 per cent – of school age children have access to any education, while the remainder are classed as being out of school, according to UNHCR’s education unit in Malaysia.
What education they receive is in 120 informal learning centres throughout Malaysia, run by the refugee community or faith-based organizations, with support from UNHCR. Many struggle with limited funding, overcrowded classrooms and 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.
“My friends don’t go to school, some friends work in the market, some friends are married, and others have to take care of their siblings … I feel sorry for them,” said Shamshidah.
The schools, like the one in Kuala Lumpur that Shamshidah and her younger sister Yasmin now attend, frequently rely on volunteer teachers, some of whom are retired educators, like Mira*.
"I don´t know how to read or write ... That is why I don´t want my children to work but to study.”
“A friend asked me if I wanted to volunteer. As I had been teaching children all my life, I said ‘why not?’” said Mira*, who is also volunteering to improve the curriculum at the refugee learning centre. “Children are children,” she added. “They need have no nationality, they need education.”
Access to education is seen as key for the more than 21 million refugees worldwide, more than half of whom are children. While appreciative of support from informal schools, UNHCR, supports access to state education for refugees in Malaysia.
“Any support towards education access to refugee children will enable UNHCR to gradually phase out the informal parallel education system that it currently supports, and channel the resources towards programmes that mutually benefit the refugee children as well as those from the host community,” said Mimi Zarina Amin, head of education at UNHCR Malaysia.
Although she did not attend school herself, Shamshidah’s mother Aminah is supportive of her daughters and hopes their education will open doors for them that she missed out on.
“I was born in a poor family and I had to find my ways to find food,” Aminah said, listing the ways that a lack of an education affects her every day. “Every time I take a taxi, I don’t know the numbers, I don´t know how to read or write, I don’t know how to do anything. That is why I don´t want my children to work but to study.”
While Shamshidah feels self-conscious about being older than her classmates, Aminah encourages her. “I tell her not to feel shy because this is for you not for me,” said Amina. “I want you to go to school for you.”