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Ensuring Women Refugees Are Not Forgotten

By: Arif Zahran

Editor: Saeid Juwanda

Women refugees are often times overlooked in terms of education and work skills.

Back in July, Al-Jazeera released a video about alleged migrant mistreatment during the enforcement of the Movement Control Order (MCO). I will not get too much into the accuracies or inaccuracies of the video. However, it has helped open conversations about the migrant community that are living in Malaysia. Amongst them are the refugee community, who, by Malaysia’s definition are counted as illegal immigrants if they are unregistered.

The refugee community, and the migrant community in general, are now facing more and more persecution. They are viewed as uneducated, illiterate, bringing crimes or problems with them and generally hard to integrate into society due to their lack of mastery of the local languages. This makes them vulnerable, as they cannot branch out of their communities to sustain themselves. With the MCO, however, people have started to realize how this pandemic affects them as well. With many losing their jobs, refugees are very vulnerable to unemployment, as they lack a source of income.

And this raises some questions on the welfare of these communities, as Malaysia is home to at least 180,000 refugees alone, with many more awaiting registrations or are undocumented according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia. Who are taking care of their needs? Who’s got their backs when society turns on them?

I approached Women For Refugees (WFR), a group dedicated to help equip these vulnerable, marginalized refugees with necessary skills to help them self-sustain during a time where they are not able to receive much help from the government, due to them not being of the local populace. I managed to interview Ellya Zaireen Binti Zain Shahrer, the Director of External Relations, and Taha Abderrezak Achoui, the Director of Education for WFR.

Who are Women For Refugees?

Formed in September of this year by two law students, Women For Refugees is an initiative that aims to empower and up-skill women from marginalized community. Started by Arissa Jemaima Ikram Ismail and Davina Devarajan, WFR started after the two founders met with some of the women in a refugee community in Selayang, who told them their desire of learning English and Malay, surprising the duo. WFR then started recruiting volunteers and are now holding literacy classes for free for migrant women.

What inspired WFR to help refugees, and why women specifically?

As to why WFR focuses on women refugees, and not other marginalized groups, Mr. Taha said “We realized that the people who are most vulnerable are the people who needed the most help. And in the vulnerable communities usually women are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.”

Source: Women For Refugees official Instagram page

Mr. Taha then added that WFR aims to create a sustainable framework that helps these women not just for a moment, but sustainable enough to someday reach a point where the women are self-reliant without needing external help.

“We would love to help everyone, we would love to help more people who need help, but the bigger the number of people you work with, you’ll get thinned out, and not focused,” he added.

“Women are the main pillar of a family. If you teach a woman, she can go on to teach her husband, she can go on to teach her children. The impact and the effect of teaching the women will go on and hopefully spread to the whole community,”

Echoing the same points, Ms. Ellya added that women are often overlooked and forgotten, as society tends to associate education with children, and job opportunities with men, leaving no room for discussions regarding women.

This tendency of excluding women is what spurred WFR to focus their efforts in helping women. The end goal is to help refugee women be self-sustainable and self-reliant within their own community.

What other skills does WFR equip these women refugees?

Ms Ellya is one of the volunteers who provide basic English lesson to minority Muslim Rohingya refugees in a classroom in Selayang

As of writing this article, Mr. Taha explained that WFR is working on a program called Refugee Women Entrepreneurial Program (RWEP). RWEP is a three-step program, in which the first step is to teach English literacy and communication skills. Malay is also taught in this program; however, English is the main language focus. This is to help them confidently communicate with others.

“After that, the second step, is leadership and business skills. We want to encourage them to take on leadership roles in their communities, at the same time equip them with business skills such as terms and accounting knowledge. We would also like to equip them with digital and online literacy as well.”

All these skills are to be taught to the women refugees so that they would be self-sustainable and self-reliant, so that they can move on to step three. This step is where WFR would seek to partner up with local NGOs and businesses, or businesses started by these women refugees themselves to generate a sustainable income.

How did the refugees first react to WFR?

“It was actually their idea, they wanted this, they wanted to be able to have communication skills, they wanted to learn this, and they came to us and they asked ‘can you please help us out? This is what we want to learn’. Even until today, we ask them, whenever we conduct classes, is this the direction you want us to follow? Is this helpful to you?’”

Mr. Taha went on to explain that while WFR provides their services and volunteers to help equip these women refugees learn and integrate into Malaysian society, these women also help guide WFR in making their framework in terms of helping women refugees get the skills they so desperately need to self-sustain in uncertain times.

Mr. Taha teaching the refugees in small groups

“We are reliant on them, and they made us start this. It was their needs.” Mr. Taha then added that the public is very welcoming of the help WFR does in equipping these women education and skills, and that WFR receives a lot of enquiries and volunteer applications.

Ms. Ellya then added that these women were very excited to attend classes, with some of the women coming earlier than the allocated time. “There were no pushbacks, rather there was a lot of excitement when there is class. They came a bit earlier just to have a conversation and ask us to check on their worksheets and for any other further explanations. They were very accepting of it and were very passionate about trying to learn and trying to improve their standard of living as of today”.

WFR is quite a new organization, being founded sometime in September of this year. What are the plans of WFR to further grow the organization?

“Our end game would be to tackle the Selayang area, as we know that there are a few communities residing in Selayang”, said Ms. Ellya, regarding the future plans for WFR.

“Let’s not beat around the bush, some of the local communities call refugees dirty, and they come to this country and do all of this kind of things that bring negative impact to the community. What we want to do is to make sure as many of the refugee communities in Selayang are able to use our framework in hopes that it would change the perspectives and narrative of refugees as being bad, to that of refugees are able to sustain themselves.”

Ms. Ellya then explained that they hope that WFR’s framework could be adopted by other organizations, and that it will help give positive gains for all sides.

Is WFR looking to expand outside of the state or even establishing branches in other countries?

When asked of this, both representatives of WFR smiled in amusement, with Ms. Ellya explaining that they hope to make a nationwide impact with their organization. The main thing is to allow the refugee communities to be self-sustainable, with the thought process of that they can further contribute to the economy.

However, this is not saying that WFR is not looking to expand beyond Malaysia. “There has not been a detailed conversation about it yet, but we have been irking to start one in Bangladesh where it’s the hub of refugees, specifically Rohingyan refugees. We would also have to consider that we will be tackling more on their trauma and where they came from.”

Mr. Taha then added that WFR currently does not have the expertise to properly treat or target trauma related issues, but they do refer these refugees to organizations and NGOs that do have psychological services. He said that WFR hopes that one day they will be able to handle them but reaffirms that WFR is still in its beginning stages and that they should focus on what they can do at the moment.

WFR also helps educate the children of these women refugees

What does the WFR hope for the future of these refugees?

Ms. Ellya reiterated that WFR aims to help these refugees, to be self-sustaining and independent, even with the little things like communicating at a hospital or clinic using Malay or English, and also to be able to pay for these services themselves.

Mr. Taha also added that they would like the framework of WFR to be perfect, or as close to perfection as they can. “We want to make it so that the framework is simple but impactful. We hope to be able to create a framework that can be used by other communities as well, not just the Selayang community”.

At the end of the day, the interview has helped shed some light on the men and women behind powerful movements and organizations such as Women For Refugees, whose volunteers work tirelessly to ensure that the wellbeing of refugees and marginalized groups are taken care of, not as a form of charity, but as a way to give back to the local and refugee communities. It is with that note, that I wish them well, and for more people to support organizations such as these, whether it be through volunteering or financial assistance, and help provide a better place for these refugees to live in.

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