Teaching Burmese refugees in Malaysia

Posted on August 30, 2011 by

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Written by Soon Chen
Images from UNHCR Malaysia 

Yesterday I said mingalaba, a greeting phrase I learnt from my fellow camper Harry, to my Myanmar refugee students. I remember how it was when I first stepped foot into a low-cost flat at the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur where the students gather every night for English and music lessons.

I said, “Hi everyone, my name is Soon Chen, nice to meet all of you!” Trepidation settled in my gut as the faces of 20 over children and a few adults greeted me. The last class I taught was a bunch of boisterous teenagers three years ago. I had happily abandoned any thoughts of ever teaching again after completing my teaching practicum while studying for my TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) degree in university.

Now I am facing this group of equally boisterous students, just that they are chatting in Burmese this time. It’s been three months since my first class with them. From the apprehension to a sense of fulfillment after each class, I begin to enjoy my weekly meeting with them more and more.

Yesterday’s lesson began when I wrote “My Family” on the whiteboard. I have to admit that I am not the most well-prepared teacher. Blame it on procrastination, I usually scramble to print out the materials and exercises for the students in the nick of time just a few hours before the class.

This week’s topic came from the intention to encourage the students to converse in English as I thought it is easier for them to talk about themselves and their family members. It did occur to me before the lesson that these children are refugees living in Malaysia and most of them have probably never met their extended family members. Would I make the children sad to think about the rest of the family that they left behind and never knew? I remember how uncomfortable I felt during the History lesson in school when my teacher asked us to draw our family tree and write the family profile. My teacher would be screaming, what, everyone has a father, why no father? Still, I went ahead with my lesson thinking that no matter what, at least these children need to know the English terms used for the family members.

Hands shot up when I asked the class who has brothers and sisters. Silence followed when I asked, “Do you know, who is your father’s father?” Only one child shouted “Grandfather!” The little heads shook when I asked whether they have met their grandparents. I had the same response when I asked about uncles, aunts and cousins. The class learnt many new words yesterday.

So, what to make of the whole scenario? I feel sad for the children although I don’t know if they feel the same way. Someone who is also teaching the refugee students once told me to never ask about their past and what happened in their country. I think the children do not have a past, they have a future instead. Whether they will remain in Malaysia or deported to other countries again, I hope someday they will have equal opportunities just like any other children.

The little girls sitting in the front row were busily checking out the reference books I brought to class. The melancholy in me kicked in again. I believe many children in my country take their textbooks for granted and these refugee children do not even own a single textbook after coming to class all this while. Perhaps it’s time for action again, it’s time to move the butt and work out ways to raise fund to buy the textbooks.

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