Saturday, March 5, 2016

Refugee school uses artwork to highlight plight of Rohingya

Behind an unmarked door in a row of quiet shop lots in Cheras Utama is a small and decrepit-looking office space. But for a group of Rohingya refugee children, this is school. It is here that Nazri Mazlan leads daily afternoon classes for Rohingya children at Floating Children, a school housed in the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingyas Human Rights Organisation Malaysia (MERHROM) Education Centre. Apart from textbook stuff, Nazri, the education coordinator, also tries to impart social skills to help the children blend into society and have as normal a childhood as possible. "We play a lot of games because we have to keep them coming back," he said of the difficulty in getting the children to turn up on a daily basis. "Their family are not going to force them to come. They might not even make this month's rent. They're just trying to survive."  The school is called Floating Children in direct reference to founder Mike Tan's observation of how refugee children appear to be "floating" between different cultures and identities, as their futures remain uncertain. Tan, who is a visual artist based in the United States, was spurred into action two years ago when he started reading about the refugee situation in Malaysia and was moved by the issues and challenges faced by the community.  After he contacted MERHROM, he was told that the most pressing need for the community's younger generation was the need for consistent schooling.  Generation-defining crisis Tan said he began to commit to the project when he realised just how deep a problem the refugee crisis was both in Malaysia and around the world. "I think I really began working seriously on Floating Children as a project when I realised that immigration and the refugee crisis we are experiencing all over the world right now is a generational theme that will come to define our era," he said. There are an estimated 157,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Malaysia, out of whom 52,570 are Rohingyas from Myanmar. As Malaysia is not signatory to the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention, Rohingyas have no access to legal employment and government healthcare services. Their children have no access to formal education. Apart from Floating Children, there are education centres scattered all over the Klang Valley and other states, notably the Rohingya Education Centre in Batu Belah, Klang. The school is run by Muslim groups Wadah Pencerdasan Umat (Wadah), Persatuan Jaringan Islam Global Masa Depan (FGN) and the Muslim Youth Movement (Abim), working closely with UNHCR.  'Double exposure' Tan said he sought to find a teacher as well as a suitable curriculum to start the school for the children some time in 2015. However, apart from the academics, Tan felt a need to tell a more intimate story of the Rohingya child's experience and he decided the best medium for this was through a combination of collected photo portraits and drawings.  Dubbed "Double exposure", the visual project he undertook aims to let the children express themselves through art.   "It basically combines photo documents I collect of Rohingya children with drawings they made," said Tan. The children's drawings are powerful, ranging from a body lying in a pool of blood to a stick figure holding a gun. Others are more hopeful like a simple drawing of a house.  These drawings are a peek into the traumas they have experienced, as well as their hopes for the future. "The end goal is to get the work shown, to deepen our understanding of the refugee experience and to remind us that there are unique and traumatic stories behind the refugee crisis." He hopes to turn the project into a book where all proceeds will be channelled back to Floating Children.  For now, Tan funds the school but Floating Children welcomes donations, volunteers and partnerships. Find out more about the project at – March 6, 2016.]]>

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