In a bare room in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, students sit on the floor reciting the alphabet. But these are not children. The students are refugee women. Some are in their late 50s. All are, for the first time, learning to read and write, both in Malay and in English.
The weekly classes take place in a dingy neighborhood. They are offered by the Women for Refugees group, which was formed in September by two law students. The founders wanted to help illiterate migrant women integrate into the local community and empower them to participate in daily life outside their homes.
“I don't know even know my ABCs, but now I am learning,” says Zaleha Abdul, 54, a Muslim Rohingya refugee. She wants to be more independent when going shopping or anywhere else.
Like Abdul, many refugee women in Malaysia have picked up the local spoken language. But without knowing how to read or write, they are mostly confined to familiar surroundings.
Arissa Jemaima Ikram Ismail, 23, was a volunteer with a relief agency when a refugee leader in the town of Selayang requested help to uplift women in his community. Many migrants have settled in that area.
Ismail and fellow law student Davina Devarajan, 25, met some of the women. They were surprised that they wanted to learn the English and Malay languages. For most refugee women, education is often viewed as a low priority, Arissa says. But these women were eager.
The duo formed Women for Refugees and recruited teachers. They now have about 20 volunteers who give weekly two-hour literacy classes in English and Malay. They work from a rundown two-story block that houses some 50 families.
The free classes are open to all migrant women, although currently the students are all from Myanmar and Indonesia. Over a dozen women, ranging in age from 18 to 50, initially attended. But they brought along their children, which proved to be disruptive. The group then launched classes for the children in a separate room so that their mothers could focus better.
In the long run, Devarajan says the mission hopes to expand classes into other neighborhoods and include technical skills that could help the women earn income.
All in-person classes have, however, been halted since mid-October due to a fresh surge in coronavirus cases. The restrictions were expanded to most of the country this month, and all schools nationwide were shut until the end of the year. Teaching still goes on with pre-recorded lessons that are viewed on three shared laptops in the migrants’ living quarters. Live classes are also conducted once per week for older migrant children.
In the long run, Women for Refugees wants not only to equip these women to help themselves and their families. The group also hopes to alter public opinion about migrants. Many locals view migrants not as contributors but as a burden on the country’s resources and healthcare system.
(A volunteer teacher gives a basic English lesson to refugee women at a slum outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. AP/Vincent Thian)