Hope For A Better Future - A Malaysian Teacher Creates A Heaven For Refugee Children


Dr. Kuna. Dr. Kuna.

Foto : Krisha Vishinpir, UNHCR

When shy and socially awkward Rohingya refugee, Ayub first stepped into a classroom at a learning centre for refugees several years back, he found himself in a strange and frightening environment into which he did not fit.

"I was embarrassed," the 14-year-old teenager said. "Other children could speak some English but I could not speak at all."

Ayub's family had fled Myanmar many years ago to Malaysia in order to find safety. But as a refugee in Malaysia, it meant that Ayub – like all other refugee children in the country - had no access to formal education. By the time he entered the Tamil Forum Malaysia Learning Centre (TFM Learning Centre), Ayub had a lot of catching up to do.

But catch up he did. From a boy who had never attended formal schooling and was too scared to speak to his classmates, Ayub went on to become a top student, the school's soccer team captain, and a prefect. Today, confident and eloquent Ayub exemplifies the amazing transformative powers of education.

Malaysian former medical practitioner Dr. Kunaletchmy, or Dr Kuna as she is affectionately known by her students, runs TFM Learning Centre with a passion for transforming lives through education.

Ayub Khan

"When TFM first opened its doors in 2009, it was to help Sri Lankan refugee children obtain education," said Dr. Kuna. "Some refugee parents met with us and said that the most crucial thing to them was their children's education. So, we decided that we will try to assist in a small way."

Those days, the TFM Learning Centre occupied one floor of a small shop lot that fit 20 students and three teachers. The centre has since expanded to larger premises, providing educational classes on subjects like English, Mathematics, and Science to over 130 refugee children of mixed nationalities including from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Pakistan. Since it started, the school has helped change the lives of over 800 refugee children through education. There are some 36,000 refugee children in Malaysia. They have no access to the national education system, compelling UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, its NGO partners, and refugee communities themselves to support a parallel system of education.

Dr. Kuna addressing school students.

There are now more than 120 of such community learning centres throughout Malaysia, largely run by refugees themselves with the support of volunteers, many of which struggle with limited funding and overcrowded classrooms with few resources.

Dr. Kuna understands only too well the challenges of limited resources. TFM relies heavily on donors and supporters to run its programmes.

"Donors help sponsor our students, and some give provisions to very poor families. When 15 of our students were ready to sit for the GCSE ‘O' Levels exams, donors came forth to sponsor the exam fees. And a group of retired teachers provided rigorous coaching sessions to help as many as possible to pass the exams.

"UNHCR trained our teachers, gave us books, provided some stipend for our teachers, and subsidised our rental costs," said Dr. Kuna.

Ayub and his friends Abdul.

Fortunately, many donors have been willing to step forth and support the learning centre. Perhaps, they share in Dr Kuna's firm belief that education is the only way to break the cycle of poverty for any child, to make them feel useful, and eventually be able to give back to society.

"We sponsored a young refugee girl to attend university, and she was determined to pay us back in some way. So, she came back and taught in the school," said Dr. Kuna.

The young woman even volunteered her time to coach a student to qualify for a university foundation programme. The strength of character in students like this is certainly a mark of pride for TFM that believes in providing the most holistic schooling experience for the students as possible, including excursions and other extra-curricular activities.

Students in one of the classes at TFM.

"As far as we can, we try to provide all the activities that other children experience in public schools, beyond academics," said Dr. Kuna.

"We feel that these children must be able to look back when they're older and say that they went to a school that gave them everything that a non-refugee child had," she said.

Perhaps what is even more remarkable in TFM's holistic educational approach is Dr Kuna and her team's innate understanding that students who have experienced trauma, and are of extremely diverse religious and cultural backgrounds, like refugees, need an opportunity to heal, and learn to peacefully share a space together.

"These children have come from war-affected countries, and places where they faced discrimination," said Dr. Kuna.

Refugee children, Dr. Kuna said, would have arrived with emotional experiences and trauma that most people could not possibly understand, and then be forced to adjust suddenly to a new and strange environment, and be expected to function like normal.

"We know that this might be too much to ask of a child," admitted Dr. Kuna.

Understanding this, TFM engages external experts, including spiritual groups, to teach the children inner peace, acceptance, and tolerance.

"This school is a school for learning. There is nothing else that is important here. No talk of religion and no talk of anything else. They have left their country because of discrimination so they need to learn to live in peace now, and know that they have a safe place here in school," said Dr Kuna.

Kindergarten student at TFM.

It is apparent that this is a vocation for Dr. Kuna and the teachers at TFM, and it is easy to imagine the profound fulfillment in watching timid or scared students overcome adversity, and emerge with greater strength and courage.

Students like Ayub, for instance, who may never have had an opportunity to hope for a better future for himself if it weren't for this learning centre.

"I want to be an engineer when I grow up because with the skill, I can be useful in any country I am in," said Ayub.

"With engineering, I can work anywhere because every country needs engineers. I also want to help people in my own country," he added.

Dr. Kuna reminds her students of the importance of education in a way that makes sense to these children who understand what it is like to have been displaced.

"You can lose anything, but what you have learnt, you can never lose. That goes with you forever.

Dr. Kuna with teachers.

"I will continue doing whatever I can because I know no matter how difficult, I am giving them a better future. When I see the smiles on their faces, I am assured that there is a future for them. The wars were not started by children so why should they suffer for our mistakes?" said Dr. Kuna.


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