The steps creaked each step of the way as I walked up the stairs to the door of the center. As the door squealed open to a dark room, a ray of sunlight struck the room from the corner of the cracked ceiling above and shone down on a young girl seated on the floor, finding words to solve a crossword puzzle. In the background, voices of other children, some playing, and others repeating their just put together sentences, letters and numbers echoing their much older teachers. The hallways were filled with laughter and childish chatter, and over on the small balcony, a yard of scattered old toys. You could feel the wind through your hair coming from different holes from hallways of the house. The building looked rather old, and the rooms were divided into classrooms that were not hygienic enough for the use of children. The centre, despite the din and clamor, was still bound by sorrow and poignancy.
The young girl got up and made her way up to the third floor. There, she shyly greeted her teacher by grabbing her hand and placing it on her forehead as a sign of respect. The “teacher” was a young volunteer almost the same age as she was.
The teacher, who was organizing a pile of papers, seemed happy to meet Thnwa. She asked her to take a seat and picked up a sheet of paper from the pile she organized and handed it to Thnwa and asked her to begin reading the passage.
Thnwa pronounced as [Then-Wa] was one of thousands refugees in Malaysia, and like the others, she had a story of her own. The eighteen year old young Sudanese refugee left her country in 2007 due to the Civil War that had threatened not only her life, but also many others.
That Civil War was a continuation of the previous Civil War, which took place between the 1950s till the early 70’s. Although the movement was mainly political, many lives were affected by the troubles. The conflict circled around the many differences in North and South Sudan: politics, religion, social beliefs and lifestyles. Most of the bloodshed, however, occurred in South Sudan, Thnwa’s homeland.
Thnwa and her family lived everyday under the fear of violence and oppression during the Civil War. Some of her family members died and were wounded from the bombing.
“It was a dark night when it all happened. People were shouting, and crying, people were dying in front of my eyes. I lost my friends, cousins and other members of my family,’’ she said.
“That was when my mother and my father discussed and realized it’s no longer safe to live in Sudan. My father then contacted a couple of people and he was told Malaysia is the best choice,” she added. That was when Thnwa and family flew to Malaysia with the hope of finding a better life.
“It was a long trip from Sudan to Malaysia. It was our only choice. We knew nothing about Malaysia and we needed all the help we could get. So we went to the UNHCR office and we were led to the center named MSRI that helps refugees and those that need to be resettled.’’
When Thnwa and her family were taken to the refugee center — the MSRI also known as the Malaysian Social Research Institute — it marked to her how her old life, and the dreams that she had for herself, were now gone.
“I was scared and anxious, I had to meet new people and I had to learn English and I didn’t know anything about it, it was a new place I can never call home,” she added.
Juwyria Mohamed, a Masters Degree student, was moved by Thnwa’s story, as she realised that Thnwa is one of thousands of refugees in Malaysia who had gone through oppression in their home countries. Juwyria may be busy with her studies but that didn’t stop her from becoming a Refugee Services volunteer. “I love helping other people,” she said.
The MSRI was a non-profit organization that ran the Sahabat Support Centre (SSC) which provided services to refugees from minority communities who were living in Malaysia while waiting to be resettled in a third country.
The MSRI housed hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees, each of them with their own harrowing stories of war and survival. Of her time there, Juwyria said, “I’ve had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees and it has been and still is a life changing opportunity to hear about their courage.”
Volunteering has not only helped refugees like Thnwa, it has also changed Juwyria.
“Before I met Thnwa I was unmotivated and lacked confidence in myself. I was selfish and did not believe that I had the ability to engage myself in the society to make a difference.’
“I am from the same nation as Thnwa, from Northern Sudan and hearing her story breaks my heart,” Juwyria continued.
“It was the first time I saw the dark side of my own country when I met Thnwa. I learned what she has been through and how she lived life every day, seeing the different way of life and the standard of living that the Southerners have has affected how I see things.
“I was touched by the conflict, and this is what made me more determined to help. Thnwa is a strong person and she made me a stronger person. She made me more independent, outgoing and taught me more about myself and others around me and most of all taught me how to count my blessings.”
Refugees are by definition people who have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. In modern times, they have been in and out of countries ever since the First World War. And accommodating them is no easy task. The situation in Malaysia presents a complex protection dilemma for the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, as a result of the large number of urban refugees in the country. Because of this, throughout the years people have either volunteered to help them get back up on their feet again, or simply ignored them.
Refugees around the world are no different than ourselves. They hold the same posture, similar attitude and gestures towards things and people surrounding them. Nobody is too good for them. They are simple, modest and keen to seek knowledge and welcome people with their arms wide open.
In Malaysia, most refugees face real challenges, such as racism and sometimes abuse. Most people don’t have an idea of what these people go through and that’s when volunteers should join hands to help these children and adults to bring out the best in them in a desirable manner, and educate them on what is right or wrong, with the accordance to the society they live in.
Thnwa, like thousands more, was looking for opportunities on her own, with the very little English she spoke, and very little knowledge she had. It’s definitely not easy for refugees to find people who are willing to help and educate these restless souls about the world and how the world works.
Despite all that she’d been through in Southern Sudan, she still kept a positive and peaceful place in her memories to remember people with, because Thnwa believed in the goodness of people.
“After all the doors have been closed in my face, I only have your door to knock on now,” said Thnwa to Juwyria.
Thnwa found out that she wasn’t alone in this world, and that the goodness of people can still be found out there. She and many others found themselves at home when at school, meeting new friends, sharing inspiring stories with each other, and even balancing the equilibrium of education amongst the Volunteer teachers and themselves.
Not only were the volunteers building a better future and life to those in need, but they’ve benefited and learned quite a lot from them in return. And through this, Thnwa learned and started to believe that she was a human being, just like everyone else. And despite having a difficult life journey, she would not surrender to the barricades that life had set on her. With her voice finally being heard by the volunteers, Thnwa regained the faith in goodness of her fellow human beings.
Volunteerism provides a platform so that the civil society, organizations and local communities can benefit from the expertise and skills of local populations. Volunteering can help individuals acquire new skills and experience that they can use to enhance their employability, and also for those who are unable to work or who are isolated from the community or people around them can be an excellent way to build social relationships and networks.
Edited for ISSUE Magazine by Lutfi Hakim