Despite her tender years, Heidy Quah has received various local and international recognition for her efforts in helping refugee children, writes Nadia Badarudin

SHE was barely 18 years old when she started teaching English to refugee children near her neighbourhood.

At that time she was just a timid girl wanting to do something productive while waiting for college acceptance offers.

Initially, she was clueless and did not know much about refugees. But who would have thought that unschooled Myanmar refugee children would eventually become her battle.

Her aim is making education accessible to vulnerable communities in Malaysia. And her works have been internationally recognised, with various accolades under her belt.

Meet Heidy Quah, the founder and director of Refuge for the Refugees (RFTR). RFTR is an NGO established in September 2012 with the goals to help raise awareness about the state of refugees and provide aid to refugee schools in terms of education and sustenance. Due to their status, refugee children cannot attend formal schools and are, therefore, forced to make do with whatever limited resources they have.

SETTING REFUGE
Quah, now 22, says RFTR kicked off with a simple wish: To help Chin Children’s Education Centre, a refugee school where she volunteered to teach English, to stay open. The school was funded by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the UN Refugee Agency.

“Coming from a privileged background, I thought I was there to teach but in the end I was the one learning from the kids.

“They taught me things beyond the blackboard and how most of us take education for granted,” says the former SMK Damansara Jaya student.

Quah felt obliged to do something when the school headmaster told the volunteer teachers that the school was closing down because it would no longer receive any funds from UNHCR.

“I was about to pursue my tertiary education while those kids were being robbed of their only access to education.

“I felt something was not right so I told the headmaster to give me one week to raise funds to keep the school open at least a month and work things out later,” says Quah who is a final year accounting and finance student at Inti International College in Subang Jaya, Selangor.

Quah and her best friend, Andrea Prisha, initially raised funds by selling homemade cookies from door to door.

“It was tough work and some refused to buy when they knew it would benefit the refugees. So, Andrea and I turned to social media. We highlighted our mission via Facebook,” she says.

The duo set RFTR on Sept 3, 2012 to facilitate fund-raising and raise awareness on refugee-related issues.

“To our surprise, we managed to raise RM12,500 in three months, which was more than enough to keep the school open for more than a month.

“It also marked the beginning of our determination to make an impact on other people’s lives even though we are still young.

“We learn that the more awareness we can raise on the plight of these refugees, the more opportunities we will have to be able to help them,” she adds.


Quah is determined to make education accessible to refugee children in Malaysia. Photo courtesy of Refuge for the Refugees.

EMPOWERING THROUGH EDUCATION
From helping one school, RFTR has played its part in establishing 10 schools for refugees in the Klang Valley and Penang as well as 25 schools in Myanmar.

“RFTR’s main goal is to empower refugee children with education so that they can self-sustain and be independent. And, hopefully, they too can educate their own communities and make a difference eventually,” says Quah.

Two years ago, the NGO started teaching the concept of micro-financing to the children so that they can become entrepreneurs.

“We give them access to the Internet and encourage them to come up with a viable business idea where they sell their wares online.

“They came up with all sorts of products such as soft toys, keychains and a Burmese sambal to sell. Besides retailing online, we help sell the items during our campaigns and bazaars,” she says. “That’s the least we can do to help them be self-sustained.”


Besides education, RFTR grooms the refugee children to generate their own income by becoming entrepreneurs. Photo courtesy of Refuge for the Refugees.

CHALLENGES CONQUERED
Quah has received various local and international recognition for her selfless and untiring efforts, with the latest being the forthcoming 2017 Queen’s Young Leaders Award — she will be among 60 outstanding young leaders from British Commonwealth countries whom will receive the award from Queen Elizabeth II in June.

However, Quah’s noble quest is not free from nasty remarks from haters, especially on social media.

“I’m criticised for helping the refugees instead of other underprivileged Malaysians. Being young does make it quite a challenge to convince people about what RFTR does and why we should help the refugees,” says Quah.

“However, most of the remarks come from those who don’t understand the issue at all. I always explain to them that we’re free to choose our own battle. Refugees are my calling. Instead of putting me down, why not pick your own battle and start to make a difference?”

Seeing the children progress from illiterates to having the capability to teach their own community has made her more resilient to such obstacles, admits Quah.

“The smiles on the children’s faces the moment they know how to read are priceless. And knowing they too have started empowering their own people with education keeps me motivated and makes me more confident to continue what I’m doing now.”


Quah was among 15 inspiring Malaysian women recently celebrated by The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and Her World magazine in conjunction with the 2017 International Women’s Day. Pix by Amirudin Sahib.

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