The colourful classroom is filled with children, who all concentrate on reading their books. On the walls, Arabic alphabets accompany the English ones.
The Fugee School in Gombak, formerly known as Save the Kids Education Fund (SKEF), is a learning centre for refugee children and youths who would otherwise have no access to education.
Founded by Deborah Henry, a World Vision children’s rights advocate as well as the former Miss Malaysia World and current Miss Universe Malaysia, the Fugee School offers education to over 60 Somali refugees between the ages of four and 17.
The aim is to prevent their isolation—hence the school’s slogan: “You’re in, not out”. In addition to the academic education, the school also aims to teach refugee children about basic social behaviour through,extra-curricular activities such as sports and field trips.
From her student days onwards, Deborah has dedicated herself to helping the ones in need. “I was always very into development and charity work.
The injustice and discrimination in the world just bugged me; the fact that some people suffer ‘just because’,” she explains. Studying political sciences at university solidified what she wanted to do.
In 2008, together with a friend, Shikeen Halibullah, she founded the education fund. “It’s a real work of heart, something I enjoy doing because I care about the cause,” she says.
Even though the school is targeted at children and youths, Deborah emphasises that the entire community needs to be taken into consideration when dealing with refugees.
“Our goal is to empower and educate the family community; we have to work with all members of the family, not just the children,” she says. Therefore they organise activities for refugee adults as well to develop their skills.
The Fugee School currently needs a great deal of volunteers—Deborah says especially expatriate wives are wanted, since they have a lot to offer, skills they can teach and knowledge they can share with the refugee community.
The volunteers at Fugee School should commit themselves for at least a period of three months, where they will spend a minimum of two hours a week at the school.
Deborah mentions they also accept donations, such as computers and other useful equipment. “Currently we are in the middle of building our IT lab—we have found that e-learning is an efficient method for displaced people.
The kids need a global perspective; access to the internet and the information it contains.” Deborah describes that most of the refugees are suffocated in their own homes—a situation that leaves them frustrated. Therefore the help of the learning centre is essential.
Education of refugee children is recognized as a universal human right. Yet in Malaysia as well as various other countries most of the refugee children have no chance to study.
NGOs and other refugee centres are trying to change the situation and help at least parts of the refugee community. But Deborah notes that the NGOs have limited funds.
“From the government side, I would like to see more aid and assistance to the refugee communities while they are staying in this country. There have been some slight improvements to the situation but a lot more still needs to be done.”
Deborah admits teaching refugees can sometimes be extremely challenging. “We have to remember that we are dealing with children who have gone through so much stress and traumatic experiences,” she says, and pinpoints that time, punctuality and discipline are of utmost importance.
“These children have not had structure in their lives in a long time, so it is something to get used to. Suddenly they end up in a different country with a strange culture and language,” she says. No doubt about it, a lot of cross-cultural understanding is required.
“I always tell people to imagine themselves in the refugees’ position; for one reason or another you are forced to leave your homeland, and a fellow country does not come to your assistance,” Deborah says. “It is all about stretching out a helping hand. That is the least we can do, isn’t it?”
The story so far
From humble roots to a fully-fledged education centre, the Fugee School’s development is an incredible success story. But how did it unfold?
Founded in mid 2008, Deborah Henry’s project was initially called the Somalia Kids Education Fund (SKEF). The aim was to help the country’s increasing population of Somali refugees; to allow them to better integrate into the larger community, into society. Deborah, along with co-founder Shikeen Halibullah, started by leading weekly tuition classes in English and maths. The lessons were doing well but the founders’ aims stretched beyond the reach of just a small group of students.
In May 2009, Deborah and Shikeen took a big step towards achieving their goals as Save Education Centre—a facility that allowed more students to be schooled—was opened. Run by a Somali refugee, Shafie Mohamed, the centre would grow to accommodate over 60 students between the ages of four and 17.
Now, far from the weekly tuition, the school teaches students English, maths, sciences, art, computing skills and their native Somali language under the moniker Fugee School.