Malaysia Group Teaches Refugee Women to Read and Write

01 December 2020

From VOA Learning English, this is the Education Report.

It could be a picture from any English language classroom. A piece of paper with English letters hangs on the wall. A teacher stands and points to the letters. The students sit on the floor and repeat them out-loud.

The difference in this Malaysian classroom is that the students are not children. They are adult, refugee women, some in their late 50s. They are learning how to read and write, both in Malay and English, for the first time.

A group called Women for Refugees offers the weekly classes in a neighborhood outside Kuala Lumpur. Two law students formed the group in September to help migrant women learn to read and to help them find a place in the local community. Another goal of the group is to help the women create a fuller life for themselves, one that includes work.

A volunteer teacher, right, gives a basic English lesson to a minority Muslim Rohingya refugees at a slum on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Oct. 11, 2020.
A volunteer teacher, right, gives a basic English lesson to a minority Muslim Rohingya refugees at a slum on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Oct. 11, 2020.

Twenty-three-year-old Arissa Jemaima Ikram Ismail told the Associated Press that a refugee leader in the town of Selayang asked her to help women in his community. Selayang is home to many migrant workers.

She and fellow law student Davina Devarajan, who is 25, then met some of the women. They were surprised that the women wanted to learn both English and Malay languages. For most refugee women, Arissa said, education is often considered unimportant.

"It was very essential for us to not pitch the refugee women as a charity, where they are constantly requiring external aid. So we want to equip them with the necessary skills so that they can sustain themselves, so that they aren't dependent on anything else."

Zaleha Abdul is a 54-year-old Muslim Rohingya refugee. She said that before joining the group she did not know any English. Zaleha has struggled to remember the English alphabet but will not give up. She said she wants to be more independent.

Arissa and Davina formed Women for Refugees and found teachers on Instagram. They now have about 20 volunteers. They give weekly, two-hour reading and writing classes in English and Malay. They teach in a worn two-story building that houses about 50 families.

The free classes are open to all migrant women. However, currently the students are all from Myanmar and Indonesia.

For the first classes, more than 12 women, from ages 18 to 50, attended classes and they brought their children. The children, like all children anywhere, made it difficult for the mothers to learn. So, the group launched classes for the children in a separate room. This way, their mothers could continue their studies.

Davina said the group hopes to expand classes in other neighborhoods. They also want to include technical skills that could help the women earn an income.

However, since mid-October all classes have stopped. Restrictions were put in place in Kuala Lumpur and surrounding areas to stop an increase in coronavirus cases. Recently the restrictions were expanded to most of the country, and all schools nationwide will be shut until the end of the year.

Shahidah, a Muslim from Myanmar and a mother of two, said she was preparing for a new life in another country. She was called for interviews three times last year by the United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) on possible resettlement to a third country. But there has been no news during the coronavirus pandemic.

"English is important for us," she said. "When we go overseas we will need English."

Arissa said teaching still goes on with pre-recorded lessons that are watched on three shared laptops where the migrants live.

Also, live classes are being conducted once a week for older migrant children.

About 178,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia are registered with the UNHCR.

And that's the Education Report. I'm Anna Matteo.

Eileen Ng reported this story for the Associated Press. Anna Mateo adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

migrant –n. a person who goes from one place to another especially to find work

essential –adj. very important and necessary

pitch –v. to talk about something in a way that will make people want to support it

charity –n. an organization that helps people in need of assistance

conducted –v. to plan and do (something, such as an activity)