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Last updateWed, 11 Nov 2015 11am

Saturday, 18 March 2017 00:00

The Invisible Refugees in Malaysia

Written by  Fu Jia Lik / KL & Selangor

Refugee Hanif presented a handmade token of appreciation to Echo Chien, CEO of Tzu Chi KL & Selangor, to express his heartfelt gratitude to Tzu Chi. [Photograph by Chan Tuck Meng]

The last session of the second day of the TIMA Conference focused on Tzu Chi and UNHCR’s efforts to reach out to the refugees in Malaysia. It was an awakening session for the audience, who are not intimately involved with this group of community, on the on-going sufferings of this group of community who live with us.


Dr Foo Seay Liang once served in government hospitals in Malaysia and resigned to continue his career in the private sector. He was invited to participate at the refugee outreach clinic through a chance meeting with a volunteer at Jing Si Books & Café. That was how he first had contact with the refugees in Malaysia. Today, he has resigned from the private sector and is now a full-time Tzu Chi staff as the Head of Tzu Chi KL & Selangor Medical Department and UNHCR Tzu-Chi Project Coordinator.

Respect and acknowledgement

To demonstrate what refugees in Malaysia face, Dr Foo played a video of a homeless man trying to get service at a restaurant, with different characters and scenarios playing out. He then asked the audience which category did they fall into based on the characters in the video. It was a very impactful moment as everyone realized that there was no middle ground when it comes to the topic of treating refugees with the respect and acknowledgement that they deserve. Through a simple video, Dr Foo delivered a strong message on treating everyone as equals and with respect.

Mr Richard Towle, UNHCR representative in Malaysia, stressed that refugees are basically your average, everyday person, who has been uprooted, divorced from everything dear to them and forced to seek asylum in a foreign land. This is a scenario that could happen to anyone.

In Malaysia, refugees are not allowed to work or education, access to healthcare treatment, and other basic rights. As per Richard’s speech, refugees are not treated as normal human beings by the mass public. Instead, they are labelled as “illegal” and “undocumented”. These legislations and labels prevent them from the basic rights of normalcy and instead they are forced to live on the margins of society.

Retiring from the private sector

At the beginning of his volunteer work with refugees, Dr Foo only committed to helping out for a day each week. Slowly, he started staying on for two, three and even four days. It was as if his original career at the private hospital has become his part-time job instead. However, whenever Echo Chien, CEO of Tzu Chi KL & Selangor, invited him to join on board as a full-time practitioner, he has always refused.

An enlightening encounter with a special Myanmar lady who brought an elderly person for a medical check up at the clinic changed his mind. The first time he met her, Dr Foo realized the elderly patient was in a serious condition and had to be admitted immediately to the hospital. After issuing the appropriate documents and letters for the transfer, he lightly reprimanded the lady for not bringing the patient in earlier. He later found out that the lady did in fact, visit the clinic the day before but was not able to get a waiting number and hence he did not meet the patient. They both had spent the night at the clinic in order to meet him.

The next day, the very same lady brought another two elderly refugees to the clinic who both were also in a bad condition and had to be admitted to the hospital. Upon hearing Dr Foo mention about hospitalization, the lady burst into tears. After consolation, he found that she was actually not related to the refugees she had been bringing in. Instead, she had met these Myanmar refugees on the streets and feeling empathy for the hardship they were in, she brought them into her home.

Dr Foo was stunned and amazed by her selflessness. He admitted that back then, if he were to meet a similar scenario as her, his actions would be drastically different. But her story made him question himself and his thoughts. He asked himself: “Where was my compassion?” It was then that he went to see Echo Chien and requested for a job as a full-time Tzu Chi staff.

UNHCR-Tzu Chi a model partnership

Richard mentioned that UNHCR and Tzu Chi has been working in partnership since 2007 through a practical Memorandum of Understanding based on common understanding and applied activities, instead of one with high-flying ambitions. He showcases UNHCR’s work with Tzu Chi to be the best in cooperation and the nature of the partnership to be exemplary.

This partnership has rescued refugees who are stuck in a limbo in life and do not know what will come next for them. Schools and education gives them a future, while healthcare for early intervention continues to keep them healthy in order for them to have more disposable income for a better life.

According to Richard, when UNHCR are unable to cope with demands due to limited capacity or resources, they reach out to Tzu Chi. Here, they are always received with welcoming voices of support, expertise and even financials. He thanks Tzu Chi and all the volunteers for the partnership throughout the years.

Education to build a future

As the UNHCR Tzu-Chi Project Coordinator, Dr Foo is also involved in the education efforts for refugees. After surveying the conditions of the UNHCR Tzu-Chi Education Centre, Dr Foo felt the need for change. However, as a medical practitioner, he was inexperienced in the matters of education and school management. Hence, Echo Chien introduced him to a retired headmaster, who coincidentally was also Dr Foo’s primary school teacher, and they gathered a team of retired educators to start a reform effort.

Their journey for change in the two refugee education centres, namely Hamony School in Selayang and Unity School in Ampang, were met with resistance from students, teachers and even parents. However, after a year’s worth of effort, they have finally achieved success, with both centres having maximum student enrolment.

The changes were presented to the audience through a video clip, which brought tears to eyes of the audience. Some of these changes include the increase of taught subjects from four to night, shorter class sessions to allow for more focused attention, and the introduction of out-of-classroom activities, such as sports day, school trips and festive celebrations. There is now secondary school syllabus being offered through another institution, which saw 11 graduates last year, with one about to sit for their O-levels. Tertiary education is also now possible for them.

The imagery shown in Dr Foo’s video are those typical of what one may expect of a normal primary school in Malaysia. But because the students are refugees, they were not able to gain neither basic education rights nor enjoy experiences that a usual child is able to. The face-splitting smiles on the children’s faces as they got to experience their first sports day and school trip were everlasting. It was clear to the audience that these children now have hope, and a chance to change their futures.

One match can make an explosion

A particular case stood out during Dr Foo’s speech. Hanif, a young Rohingya teenager was a graduate from the Education Centre. However, due to his inability to secure a job, he and his family lived in a state of poverty. It was common for them to go hungry for three days in a week, and their kitchen was filled with bottles of water they used to stave off hunger strikes.

The clinic in Selayang was receiving more and more Rohingya patients. Hence, Dr Foo invited Hanif to work there as a translator and also to help out within the clinic, an offer that was quickly accepted. Two months into his work, Hanif teared up when asked about his home situation. Due to the fact that he is now earning wages from his work at the clinic, his family has been doing much better. His mother’s diabetic condition is under control and they were able to afford a “buka puasa” meal for the first time since they came to Malaysia.

The change in Hanif and his family’s life was significant, and Dr Foo had never expected such power of his one invitation for Hanif to work at the clinic. He then urged the crowd to also reach out to these refugees, to create more “explosions” like this one through simple acts of kindness. To express the depth of their gratitude, Hanif and his family came on stage at the end of the speech to present Dr Foo and Echo Chien with handmade tokens of appreciation.

Spread the love

Throughout his speech, Dr Foo seemed to have a favourite quote: “When are you quitting to join us?” Although he repeated this several times to the healthcare practitioners in the audience with a joking manner, his request for more assistance is very real.

Dr Foo shared that patients with serious conditions should be referred for follow-up treatment at hospitals. But as the refugees are unable to afford these treatments, it falls to the clinic to do their best. Dr Foo showed images of the various severe physical wounds he has to treat, one even being infested with worms. The clinic is limited in how much they can help the refugees and the available resources are inadequate. Hence, he advocates for all doctors in hospitals to see the reality faced by refugees in order to find the best solution moving forward.

Richard was very attracted to the topic of the forum, “Healthcare beyond Medicine”. He understood it as having medicine to make people whole again and become more connected. Refugees as a whole are disconnected from the rest of society. “Human beings are a social species and we like to be connected materialistically, physically and spiritually,” he said. The same applies to refugees. Efforts from all parts of society should be increased in order to reconnect them, make them less invisible so that they can be seen and acknowledged.

 

The audience was engrossed in the sharing, which enlightened them on Tzu Chi volunteers’ efforts to provide medical service and education opportunities to the refugees in Malaysia. [Photograph by Lai Jih Chuan]   Refugee Hanif gave a testimony of how Tzu Chi changed his family’s life for the better. [Photograph by Ong Boon Hock]

The audience was engrossed in the sharing, which enlightened them on Tzu Chi volunteers’ efforts to provide medical service and education opportunities to the refugees in Malaysia. [Photograph by Lai Jih Chuan]
 
Refugee Hanif gave a testimony of how Tzu Chi changed his family’s life for the better. [Photograph by Ong Boon Hock]
 
Dr Foo Seay Liang, Head of Tzu Chi KL & Selangor’s Medical Department, gave an inspiring sharing on the touching stories in his interactions with refugees. [Photograph by Lai Jih Chuan]   Mr Richard Towle, UNHCR representative in Malaysia, made his presence at the 2017 TIMA Conference to thank Tzu Chi for the practical and pleasant collaboration between the two organizations. [Photograph by Chan Tuck Meng]

Dr Foo Seay Liang, Head of Tzu Chi KL & Selangor’s Medical Department, gave an inspiring sharing on the touching stories in his interactions with refugees. [Photograph by Lai Jih Chuan]
 
 
Mr Richard Towle, UNHCR representative in Malaysia, made his presence at the 2017 TIMA Conference to thank Tzu Chi for the practical and pleasant collaboration between the two organizations. [Photograph by Chan Tuck Meng]