By Wan Saiful Wan Jan, for Thinking Liberally, The Star, 15 March 2017

I was lucky to be introduced in 2014 to a group of Dutch expatriates living in Malaysia.  They have been volunteering at several refugee learning centres in Kuala Lumpur.  When we met for the first time, I was taken aback by their stories about the children they support.

That first conversation led to several more meetings, and eventually they result in the formation of IDEAS Academy.

This is our learning centre in Pudu, Kuala Lumpur, where we provide secondary level education for refugee children from 12 countries.

We started in 2014 with just 25 students.  Today we have more than 100 students.

The Academy has done well.  Bearing in mind that all the students come from challenging backgrounds, our teachers have done wonders to support their growth.

The teachers’ tireless effort was rewarded last year when we won the 2016 Outstanding Contribution to Secondary Education Award from the Malaysian office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR).

When we decided to set the Academy, we opted to specialise in secondary level education because we felt that there was a need for one in the Pudu area.  This was a very risky decision because it brought with it a very high cost.

Let me give some examples why the costs are higher.

Unlike primary level where the lessons are quite generic and basic in nature, secondary level education involves more technical subject.  For instance, science (and eventually biology, chemistry, and physics) is more effective if we can conduct experiments.  The experiment material and equipment are not cheap.

Additionally, when it comes to secondary education, we need to factor in the fact that Malaysia does not recognise refugees and our government’s policy is to remove them from this country when we can.  Thus we must use a curriculum that allow the students to continue their studies when they move.  Hence we use the Cambridge IGCSE curriculum.  Again, this pushes costs up especially to employ experienced teachers, but the textbooks and to pay the IGCSE exam fees.

But we decided to take the financial risk.  Our gut-feeling at time tells us that all children deserve a chance and we must do what we can to help.

Going by the numbers, I am pretty sure our hunch is correct.

The UNHCR website says that at the end of January there are 150,430 refugees in Malaysia.  This is the registered number.  I am confident that if we include the unregistered ones, the number is much higher.

Out of that, 133,856 are from Myanmar, comprising some 56,135 Rohingyas, 39,967 Chins, 10,662 Myanmar Muslims, 4,767 Rakhines & Arakanese, and the rest are other Myanmar ethnicities.

Then there are 16,574 refugees and asylum-seekers from other countries, including 3,198 Pakistanis, 2,907 Sri Lankans, 1,925 Yemenis, 1,875 Syrians, 1,712 Somalis, 1,449 Iraqis, 887 Afghans, 686 Palestinians, and more from other countries.

There are 21,405 children who are at school age.  But it is illegal for these children to attend government schools here. And since Malaysian laws ban their parents from working to earn money, of course they are too poor to afford private schools.  Their only option is to go to charity learning centres.

Unfortunately there is not enough learning centres to cater for the demand.  There are just 124 learning centres in the whole country.  As a result, from the 7,703 children who are supposed to get early education, only 1,027 (15 percent) do so.  Out of the 9,902 children who were supposed to attend primary school, only 4,964 (50 percent) can.

The number is worst for secondary level because there are only two learning centres that specialise in providing secondary level education, ours being one of them. There are a few more who combine primary and secondary education under one roof but that too is far from enough.  Out of the 4,480 children who were supposed attend secondary school, only 863 (19 percent) are in a learning centre.

It is heart-warming that our government is taking steps to help Rohingya refugees.  This should be extended to cover all refugees so that we are not accused of discriminatorily picking skin colours.  All children, including refugees from all races and religions, deserve to get education.

Until we get that policy change, charity learning centres like IDEAS Academy will remain dependent on donors to pay the RM750,000 per annum of costs.  We have space for 300 students but now we can only take 100 because we don’t have enough money to employ more teachers.

It is not easy to raise the funds and I think inevitably I will be begging for help and donation from everyone for the foreseeable future.  But, if, like me, you can see the faces of these children, you will know that it is certainly worth it.

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