How Two Young Malaysians Are Empowering Refugee Children Through Education

They run a social enterprise that aims to transform the lives of refugee children by improving the quality of the community learning centres and helping them become self-sufficient individuals.

Cover image via E-lluminate

According to United Nations High Commission For Refugees (UNHCR), there are around 21,700 refugee children living in Malaysia now, but only 30% of them have access to education

Students at the Floating Children School in Cheras.

Image via Alexandra Radu/Al Jazeera

These children, along with their families, have fled their war-torn countries for a better future in Malaysia, only to realise later that they do not have access to fundamental rights such as obtaining lawful employment, formal education, and legal status - denying them of the basic civil, economic, and social rights as any other foreigner who is a legal resident.

This is mainly because Malaysia is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor does it have any legal framework in place to outline, govern, and champion the rights of refugees in the country. 

In the eyes of the law, there is no distinction between illegal immigrants and refugees in Malaysia. To put it simply, refugees living here are at a constant risk of arrest, detention, and exploitation. 

With little money to survive on, most of them resort to working in the '3D' (dirty, dangerous, and difficult) sector, despite the fact that a large number of refugees are in fact educated professionals or skilled workers. The problem is made worse by some unscrupulous employers who take advantage of their situation, by either ill-treating them, paying them very low wages or nothing at all. 

The realities of their lives are harsh, to say the least. With little financial stability, most refugees living in Malaysia can't even provide basic education for their children, pushing them into a vicious cycle of poverty.

Refugee children at one of the learning centres in Kuala Lumpur.

Image via Facebook/E-lluminate

Thankfully, organisations like the UNHCR and other local NGOs have education projects where the children are taught subjects like English, Science, Mathematics, and Bahasa Melayu. Sadly, only around 1,000 refugee children benefit from these education projects.

Apart from these organisations, some of the refugees also run informal community-based schools with the support of NGOs and faith groups, determined to provide education to as many refugee children as they can.  

However, these schools are struggling, restricted by the lack of funds and resources. Without proper education, refugee children risk losing the ability to develop themselves mentally and intellectually - putting them at a major disadvantage in terms of securing jobs and leading stable lives. 

That is exactly what E-lluminate wants to change.

The social enterprise aims to empower and transform the lives of refugee children by improving the quality of the community learning centres and helping them become self-sufficient individuals.

Kim Lim (left) and Teoh Min Chia (right), the co-founders of E-lluminate.

Image via YouTube/E-lluminate Malaysia

Founded by two Malaysians - Kim Lim and Teoh Min Chia - in August 2017, E-lluminate was officially launched last week, in collaboration with the sixth anniversary celebrations of local NGO, Street Feeders of KL

Speaking to SAYS, Kim Lim explained that while most refugee families are struggling to put food on the table and send their children to school, the quality of education at the community learning centres are not up to the required standard and is difficult to be optimised according to each child's learning abilities. 

Kim Lim speaking during E-lluminate's launch event that was held in collaboration with the celebrations of Street Feeders of KL's sixth anniversary on 16 November.

Image via E-lluminate

To remedy that, E-lluminate wants to place well-qualified teachers at refugee learning centres and provide vocational training for the students so that they can use the skills to explore entrepreneurship opportunities in the future

Students at the refugee learning centre in Klang Valley learning to make gift cards to raise funds.

Image via Facebook/E-lluminate

The social enterprise hopes that this can help raise more funds for the schools and turn the students into independent, self-sufficient individuals.

"Good education and vocational training are important to ensure that the children develop the necessary skills, knowledge, and values required to realise their pull potential. We take into account the children's individual development process and encourage them to work on their strengths," said Kim.

One of the teachers at the refugee learning centres, Kat Vee, says that education is one of the most valuable tools in life as it has the power to not only build a nation, but also a better race

There are currently around 150,845 refugees in Malaysia and one fifth of them are of school-going age, but only 29% of them are enrolled in the community learning centres.

Image via YouTube/E-lluminate

"As Malala Yousafzai said, 'Let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons'," quoted Kat, stressing that it is her goal to continue giving her best to the children.

"I can't wait to see what amazing things they'll achieve and accomplish in the future!" 

Another teacher, Danisa, who is a psychology graduate, says that the experience of teaching refugee kids has truly enriched her life. 

"This is my first job as a teacher, and they have taught me so much, despite the language barriers. Education is very precious to me. It has served as a guidance and helped me in difficult situations and I want these students to have the same privilege," she said. 

E-lluminate has already placed three qualified, full-time teachers at two refugee learning centres in Klang Valley

E-lluminate's first entrepreneurial project with the refugee children on jewellery making.

Image via Facebook-E-lluminate

They've also collaborated with organisations and social enterprises like Biji Biji InitiativeBlack Milk Project, and even Petrosains for refugee students to pick up skills such as jewellery and sand art bottles making, and calligraphy. 

What they currently need are funds, that can help realise their dream of empowering refugee children. E-lluminate is looking to raise a total of RM150,000 per year to cover basic expenses of the teachers' salaries, material, and administrative costs. 

They are also looking for other vocational training classes such as public speaking, woodwork, and elementary level accounting for their students. If you're interested to help or know someone who wants to, find out more about E-lluminate's efforts here.

Watch Kim Lim and Min Chia talk more about E-lluminate here:

Kim Lim is also one of the co-founders of The Picha Project, a social enterprise that aims to provide financial stability to refugees in Malaysia through a food delivery business:

Refugees are a misunderstood group of people. Read this to better understand why they are forced to leave their homes in search of a safe, better future:

They are mostly from war-torn countries where everything they love and care about have been reduced to ruins:

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