Giving Refugees A Helping Hand

05 December 2017

These Malaysians have made inspiring efforts to help refugees in different ways.

With recent coverage on the plight of thousands of stateless Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar and making their way to Malaysia, there have been endless debate and discussion on how to tackle this humanitarian crisis. On the ground however, there’s been a growing movement by a few good Samaritans to provide aid and support for stranded refugees, Rohingya or otherwise.

Whether it’s providing food, shelter, education or emotional support, these everyday Malaysians are helping to improve the lives of hundreds of refugees.

Heidy Quah
At only 23, Heidy Quah is the co-founder of Refuge for the Refugees (RFTR), an NGO that aims to raise awareness about the plight of refugees in the country on top of providing aid and supplies to local refugee schools. Originally a volunteer English teacher at Chin Children’s Education Centre, Quah witnessed the struggles refugee children faced to gain access to fair and decent education. “The real turning point came when I was about to start my college education and realised that these refugees were being robbed of their only access to education,” she says.

Quah, 23, is the co-founder of Refuge for Refugees. Photo credit: Darius Shu

When the centre came perilously close to shutting down due to a shortage of funds, Quah and her best friend, Andrea Prisha, started selling homemade cookies from door to door to raise the money needed to sustain the school.

Staying true to her founding principles of making education accessible for all refugees, Quah explains, “We’re fortunate that after five years, we have now established ten schools in Malaysia [across Klang Valley and Penang], and 25 more in Myanmar. The combined intakes from the schools have provided over 2,000 refugee children with access to education and support they would not be able to find anywhere else.”

When asked about her motivations, Quah says she does it for the people. “It has always been the people – listening to their stories of trial, tribulation, perseverance and resilience – that have inspired us to keep going over the years.”

Last June, Quah’s efforts even gained international recognition when she won the 2017 Queen’s Young Leaders Award. Although rewarding so far, her journey has been far from smooth. “In the early days, it was very hard to get people to take our cause seriously. As a result of that, funding was always an issue that threatened to derail operations,” Quah laments. However, as her social enterprise grew, the detractors turned into supporters and it became a lot easier to find investors and donors.

Quah at the Telenor Youth Forum 2015 in Oslo, Norway.

Looking back on the numerous obstacles faced by her team, Quah believes that Malaysians must educate themselves on the plight of refugees in the country, and should step forward to offer help however they can. “If a community is treated right, and if people truly understand the essence of giving when helping a community, this gap can be bridged,” she says.

“Working with them [refugees] has been a very humbling experience. Learn to treat them as equals, empower them, listen to their stories – there’s so much you can learn from their resilient spirit, grit, and outlook in life.”

To find out how you can volunteer with Refuge for Refugees, email

Rayyan Haries

Rayyan Haries, better known as The Volunteer Cook, is a 28 year-old Malaysian who flew from Kuala Lumpur to the Greek island of Lesbos, off the coast of Turkey, to open a kitchen for Syrian refugees fleeing persecution in their own country.

Operating a modest and mostly makeshift kitchen in the town of Skala Sikaminea in Lesbos, Haries can be found stirring away at huge pots of soup by the seaside as he prepares to welcome an upwards of 2,000 refugees a day.

According to Haries, his philosophy is simple: “You know, I believe that food is hope. These refugees have had to leave home and wherever they will go, the journey will be tough and their final destination will be far away. Through food we want to give them hope that things will eventually get better.”

But what made the Malaysian cook leave his home to set up an outdoor kitchen on a faraway Greek island to feed refugees? Haries recalls the story of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who made international headlines in 2015 when his body washed ashore off the coast of Turkey. This was the tipping point that lead Haries to pack up his bags and leave the life he knew behind and open up a volunteer soup kitchen in Lesbos.

“Within a few days I had raised a thousand euros and gotten an airline to sponsor my trip. Three weeks later I had set up camp here and began feeding the refugees I’d previously only seen on TV,” explains Haries.

Witnessing the plight of these refugees first hand, Haries admits that there are some moments too heart wrenching to handle. However, he is spurred on by the fact that he’s able to provide some comfort to these people during their toughest moments. “This is my life now. I plan to volunteer as long as I am able and as long as I can continue cooking.”

Since the conclusion of his Grecian mission last year, Haries has kept himself busy volunteering. Apart from setting up another NGO, BelgrAid, that helps provide shelter and food for refugees in Serbia, Haries is currently involved with Volunteering for International Professionals, a program run by the National Blue Ocean Strategy. It’s currently overseeing a food development project in Lombok, Indonesia.

Rahman Hussein
Mohamed Rahman Iman Hussein, known as Prince to his friends, is a Rohingya refugee himself. In the mid-1990s, he fled the ethnic persecution in Myanmar and migrated to Malaysia with his family to break out of the cycle of fear and poverty that have become familiar to his fellow Rohingyas. Currently a second year business student at Monash University Malaysia, Prince splits his time between studying and lending a helping hand to other refugees.

Prince, a Rohingya refugee, now teaches and mentors Rohingya refugee children.

After attending secondary school in Malaysia and completing his SPM examinations, Prince wanted to give back to his own community. He took a gap year to teach refugee children English in various refugee schools and volunteer centres – an experience he describes as “tough but extremely fulfilling”.

According to Prince, “The fact that I come from the same background as many of my students was an advantage as I was able to relate to their struggles and [identify] very strongly with them. My aim is always to show them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel as proven by my own story.”

Prince is dedicated to teaching and mentoring refugee children as he doesn’t want them to experience the same struggles as he did. “During the early days [in Malaysia] I used to be just like them [the refugee children], no one was there to hold my hand and show me the right path. Now, they have me.”

Determined in his role as an educator, Prince also makes it a point not to speak in his native tongue to his students, in an attempt to push them to learn English. He says it’s the toughest part of his job.

“I had to use body language and gestures to make them understand what I was trying to say. The pay out was well worth it – by the end of the year, all the children had a basic grasp of conversational English.”

“Most importantly however, was the fact that they now had a new friend who was ready to look out for them,” says Prince.

By Erik Gan
Rahman Hussein photos by Teoh Eng Hooi.
Photos of Heidy Quah and Rayyan Harries courtesy of Heidy Quah and Rayyan Harries.


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