A Teacher From Syria Empowers Young Refugees in Malaysia


Lujain, 32 years old, is photographed in a classroom at the refugee learning centre where she volunteers as a teacher. © UNHCR/Ted Adnan Lujain, 32 years old, is photographed in a classroom at the refugee learning centre where she volunteers as a teacher. © UNHCR/Ted Adnan

Foto : UNHCR / Ted Adnan

As a Palestinian in Damascus, Lujain (*name changed for protection reasons) received free education into adulthood. Now she is sharing her love of learning in Kuala Lumpur.

Palestinian-Syrian refugee Lujain knows what it is to feel powerless, having been forced from home four years ago. But she has seized opportunities and is now working to empower others through education.

Although she was born to Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk camp in Damascus, Lujain looked forward to a bright future while growing up. "We had a house, a car, everything a Syrian citizen had," she recalls. "And even though I was not Syrian, I was able to go to school for free."

The inclusive education system enabled her to graduate from the University of Damascus with a degree in philosophy and psychology. Plans to pursue a masters and doctorate were temporarily shelved when she married a Syrian accountant and had two boys. Then the war started, forcing them to flee to Malaysia in 2012.

"I didn’t think I would be a refugee again. I thought our life was over," says the 32-year-old mother.

"I want to thank Malaysia for giving a future to me and my children. Life is not easy here because you have to work hard to survive. I was a housewife with a good life in Syria – now I teach refugee students."

There are some 150,000 refugees registered with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Malaysia, the majority being those who have fled complex human rights abuses in Myanmar. Refugees have no access to the national education system, compelling UNHCR, its NGO partners, and refugee communities themselves to support a parallel system of education.

There are about 21,700 refugee children of schoolgoing age in Malaysia. Only 30% of them have access to education in informal community-based learning centres such as the one Lujain volunteers at.

When she started teaching, it was a challenging start for Lujain as she had to learn English from scratch in just a few months, but she loves teaching and is using her psychology skills at a learning centre run by the Malaysian Social Research Institute, a local NGO.

"Sometimes, I see students with naughty or aggressive behaviour because of problems in their country or at home," she says of her Grade 1 class. "I try to understand them and encourage good behaviour with praise and rewards."

A report published by UNHCR in September 2016 highlighted a crisis in refugee education, noting that over half of the six million school-age children under its mandate have no school to go to.

In Malaysia, there are about 21,700 refugee children of school-going age. Only 30 per cent have access to education in informal community-based learning centres like the one where Lujain volunteers. There are now more than 120 such centres for refugees and asylum-seekers throughout Malaysia, largely run by refugees themselves with the support of volunteer, many of which struggle with limited funding and overcrowded classrooms with few resources.

Lujain, 32 years old, is photographed teaching at the refugee learning centre where she volunteers as a teacher.

"I feel happy and confident when I see my students learning and improving. They’ve gone from not knowing English to reading stories and having conversations. I want to help whoever is weak. Even the parents call me at home sometimes to ask about this and that because I can explain in Arabic."

A strong believer in life-long education, she hopes her students can eventually obtain the International General Certificate of Secondary Education offered at the learning centre, with which they can apply for university in Malaysia and beyond.

"Children are our new generation. They need education to get good jobs and to become good citizens. When they grow up, they will also need to teach their own children. Education cannot stop with age. Only when we learn more can we be useful to our country, to anyone who needs help."


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