Helping Refugees Grow From Victims into Victors

Deborah Henry is Malaysian-Irish. While most people recognize her as a former Miss Universe Malaysia, she’s also a dedicated human rights advocate. She co-founded Fugee School for Somali Refugees in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, of which over 250 kids have attended over the years.

Natasha Zolotareva
Dec 7, 2015 · 5 min read

Imagine one day you meet a teenager named Ahmed. This boy fled his home quickly in Somalia together with his grandmother, sister, and 2 cousins. His father passed away, and his mom was missing. The family came to Malaysia hoping that after they became registered refugees through UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, they would eventually be able to resettle in a host country like US or Australia. They would move there and eventually receive passports and equal rights as citizens. Until then, all they can do is wait hoping for their resettlement among well over a 100,000 others.

Ahmed and his family had been in Malaysia for 8 months when he met Deborah and did not speak any English. His family was safe, but they couldn’t communicate with others. They also could not attend schools. Even if they are registered, refugees are still treated as illegal immigrants by Malaysia. What would you do if you met Ahmed? How would you feel? Would you find a way to help?

When Deborah came across Ahmed’s family, she felt she had to do something. She and a friend, Shikeen Halibullah, started by giving English classes to the 4 kids. Pretty soon, other families from the Somali community heard about the Malaysian girl teaching English and wanted to sign their kids up!

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Deborah Henry co-founded Fugee School in 2008 — a school for Somali refugees in Malaysia

That’s when it became clear for Deborah. There weren’t many options for refugee kids to receive an education in Malaysia. No options really, to be exact. And the demand was much higher than what 2 people could handle in their free time.

Deborah had an interest in social work, yet opening a refugee school was not originally a goal of hers. “We came across the 4 children who needed to be educated. So we just said, ‘Let’s do it!’ We started with those 4, and we’ve been growing ever since. As of today, almost 250 students have come through our door. It’s a very big journey.”

We are often told to help those in need and feel guilty if we don’t. Many people want to help, yet remain feeling helpless. And then there are some that take action, create opportunities, and change the lives and cards dealt to so many.

When you hear the stories refugees tell — their memories of home, their horrendous escapes, their struggles in a new land — it might all sound like an action movie you might pay to see. With only one big difference. The struggles, misfortunes, war, and death surrounding the main characters are a reality, a nightmare they’ve survived.

Yet often we associate refugees not to the courageous action movie characters who fight for their lives and lives of their families. Instead, their identities are painted with strokes of poverty, misfortune, perhaps a lack of education or skilled training. Helping refugees might feel more like a charity case, rather than taking a stand to support the fight for human rights.

Deborah elaborates, “A lot of people are still very confused between refugees and illegal immigrants. The average Malaysian often can’t tell the difference. I think as tragic and as unfortunate the recent refugee crisis is — it did bring the issue right to the front pages of newspapers. Many Malaysians I’ve met said they were shocked it existed! It made people aware, more educated and informed. I think it also made people a little bit more empathetic. When the Southeast Asian and European refugee crises were all over the media, I received much more calls and emails than usual. People would write to me saying, ‘I feel terrible, I want to help!’

“In our society, we have so many identities — Malaysian, Malay, Chinese, Indian, Christian, Muslim, Indian, boy, girl, etc. So if you strongly identify with a group, when is it ok to help another person? Would you help someone because he or she is your race? Your religion? Media attention to the refugee problem really made individuals and companies start to question that. Why should I help? Because it’s the right thing to do. Not because of a race, religion, or any other group identity. But because we are all human. That’s the identity that we share.”

Tragedy catches our attention. Tragedy awakens the human emotions in us. Tragedy moves us to act. But must a tragedy exist for us to help each other? How long does the momentum of media attention last? Before those dedicated to helping the refugee communities are on their own like before?

“Put on CNN. Spend one day watching the channel. After that you’ll see enough death, and it would not affect you. You will see all kinds of disasters, and it would not affect you. It takes people to see something so horrendous like this child washed up on shore, to make us feel something again. But it’s also a fact: when we see a child — it’s something we all can relate to.”

Past tragedy is a defining part of every refugee’s story. Yet it must be known it’s just that — one part of the story. Deborah is sure anyone is able to connect to and help refugees, not because we feel guilty for living a life of privilege and luck. But because it’s the most human thing to do.

“I always invite people to come to the school and tell them, ‘Come. Take a look. Meet the children and then decide for yourself. I don’t like forcing people to give us money. And it makes sense. When men, women, corporate sponsors, non-corporate sponsors come here, what do they see? They see children who need a helping hand. That just makes sense. If you look at our website, it is not about tragedy or sorrow. We are all about strength and empowerment. We are all about the amazing students that are here.

“It’s very easy for my students to adopt a victim mentality. They are still young. They still have real bottles that they are fighting. Even after escaping their countries, they are facing some really serious issues. Yet in Fugee School, we are trying help them to step away from this victim mentality. For instance, they can’t get away with misbehaving at school just because they are a poor refugee kid. It’s important to help them overcome this mentality. To help them grow from a victim, into a victor.”

It would be an easy model for the world to adopt — once you flee your country, you are a refugee, and therefore depend on the kindness and support of others to ‘make it’ in this world.

Yet, Fugee School is taking a different approach. To empower students by treating them no different than how a student in any other school should be treated. Through education, they are also building confidence and inner strength. To turn their past into a source of strength. Stories that will not discourage and push them down, but instead, pull them up from a victim into a victor.

The stories that the teenagers from Fugee School survived are not easy to swallow, but they will leave you speechless and full of hope for humanity. You can read 5 such beautiful stories in the new book “Dawn of a New Sky” to hear more. Go to to pre-order the book and directly support Fugee School.

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