LEARNING TO COPE: Some 4,000 refugee children are studying in about 100 learning centres nationwide. The centres have survived on the goodwill of charitable organisations and volunteers. Elizabeth Zachariah visited two learning centres and this was what she saw
NESTLED in the heart of the city, in Jalan Imbi, is a "school" on the top floor of a shoplot. It caters to about 25 children, aged 4 to 17, who study in small, dingy rooms formed by thin partitions.
This is no ordinary school for the students here are refugees and they are being tutored by volunteers and older refugees who had "graduated" from this school.
It is not called a school but a learning centre, which operates from Monday to Friday, from early morning till late afternoon.
There are about 4,000 refugee students studying at more than 100 learning centres nationwide. These 4,000 students make up only 35 per cent of the number of refugee children of school-going age.
And unlike local schools, which are funded by the government, these learning centres are run by the refugees and funded by caring locals and non-governmental organisations.
The children who are lucky enough to have access to education attend either education projects run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in collaboration with NGOs or learning centres, which are organised by the refugee communities with the support of non-refugee volunteers.
UNHCR external relations officer Yante Ismail said the refugee community recognised the importance of education and had set up informal learning centres to equip their children with basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills.
"Because they are denied proper education, the communities have done a remarkable job in setting up the learning centres even with limited resources," Yante said.
"However, the projects and learning centres are not formal education so the children cannot get into universities or further their education."
The UNHCR, Yante said, was concerned with the fact that the lack of basic education among refugee children would create a generation of illiterate, unskilled and not self-sufficient people.
There are seven education projects run by the UNCHR in Kuala Lumpur, Johor, Selangor and Penang. The teachers in the project use Malaysian school textbooks to teach English, Math, Science and Bahasa Malaysia.
"Only about 1,000 children attend education projects while the rest attend learning centres," Yante said.
The community-based learning centres are informal classes which are run by volunteers from the refugee community, faith-based groups and the private sector.
They are set up wherever there are refugee communities with a large number of school-going children. The number of students in each learning centre varies from 15 to as many as 100.
A typical learning centre consists of several classes with children of similar ages grouped together to form a class. Classes normally start at 9 or 10am and would last for about two hours. Some schools have morning and afternoon sessions to accommodate the large number of students.
The lack of resources, including qualified teachers and funding, restrict the scope and reach of these classes. Classes, which are usually held in rented flats or shophouses, are overcrowded and lack basic teaching equipment like stationery.
Yante said there was a growing need for volunteers to help with teaching and administration as well as skill-building training for the teachers.
"Besides that, these learning centres are in dire need of funds for transportation of children, rental and utility bills and meals."
To meet the costs, the learning centres collect a minimal fee of RM10 to RM30 from each child who can afford it.
Refugee community organisations also help pool funds to support the basic needs of rental and UNHCR provides a monthly stipend for a limited number of teachers, textbooks, stationery, school bags and first-aid kits.
Yante said the UNHCR also trained the teachers and coordinates in areas like curriculum and examinations and had a small grant called the Social Protection Fund, where refugees could apply for funding to help with projects, including education.
Faith-based organisations, civil society groups and individuals are known to contribute to the learning centres in a variety of ways, including donating furniture, food and space for the classes to be held.
"Malaysians have been so generous in so many ways.
"There are many who volunteer as teachers and cook for the kids," Yante said, adding that there were about 500 volunteer teachers registered with the UNHCR.
There are currently 96,300 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia, with 82 per cent from Myanmar and the others from Sri Lanka, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq.