WHEN World Vision Child’s Rights Advocate Deborah Henry travelled to the borders of Lebanon to visit a Syrian refugee settlement, she was appalled with the harsh living conditions that this group of people faced.
“I don’t know where to begin in understanding the complexities of the conflict in Syria but there is no denying the fallout is one of the worst humanitarian crises in our lifetime,” she says of her experience.
Lebanon is home to more than one million Syrian refugees, most of whom live in informal settlements made out of tarpaulin tents supported by wooden frames. The unprotected tents barely make it through harsh winters. Families clamoured around her, begging Deborah to take them back to Malaysia.
One woman stood weeping, as her brother murmured softly in Arabic: “Sister, save your tears for there would be worse days ahead.”
Throughout history, communities, polities and civilisations have been destroyed, supplanted or enriched by inflows of people from foreign cultures and ethnic groups. People have always moved, but today more people are being unwillingly displaced from their homes than at any time since the end of the 2nd World War.
Yet they’re not regarded as people with rights: nobody would tolerate hearing about exploitation, violence, human trafficking with no access to healthcare, education and little to no chance of employment.
At best they are bleak but intangible statistics, the object of a bit of tutting before mundane everyday life takes over. For others, they are an unwanted and uninvited swarm that countries must keep out: full of undeserving would-be leeches who have no place in the places of refuge that they seek.
Refugees by definition are victims of human rights violations. Article 1(a)(2) of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951 (hereinafter referred to as the Refugee Convention) defines a “refugee” as “any persons who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”.
It is easy to lose sight of the experience of individual refugees in the deluge of large numbers, says Deborah, pointing out: “Refugees by definition are people fleeing conflict and persecution and with no alternative but to leave their country.”
Continues Henry, they lose their homes and their livelihoods. Often, they are separated from their families. In many cases they experience violence, discrimination and deprivation during their journey and even after it ends in exile.
“Malaysians are naturally empathetic,” she muses. “It’s only when we strip the humanity from people – when we stop imagining them as being quite human like us – that our empathetic nature is eroded.”
We, she emphasises, need to show the reality of refugees: their names, their faces, their ambitions and fears, their loves, and what they fled.
A CALLING TO HELP
Deborah’s journey with World Vision began, long before she won her crown in 2007. Her parents, she reveals, have sponsored children through World Vision.
“I grew up being very familiar with World Vision, and I’ve have had sponsored a child myself back then,” she says.
World Vision is an international Christian humanitarian organisation dedicated to working with children and families to overcome extreme poverty and injustice.
When beauty pageant contestants wheel out the old line that what they really want is world peace, it is usually for nothing more than an easy round of applause. But far from the cliched calls for world peace, the beauty queen’s mission was a little closer to what she resonated with.
“It was something I cared about since young,” she begins. “I was probably a naive idealistic 14-year-old teenager but I was always interested in poverty eradication and felt greatly disturbed that millions of children around the globe couldn’t go to schools and would never break out of the vicious poverty cycle for the lack of opportunities.”
Born in Dublin, Ireland, Deborah, who is of Irish-Indian parentage, grew up in Kuala Lumpur. The lithe 1.77 m, who looks luminous in the afternoon light that snakes through the tiny cafe we’re seated in, confesses she was a tomboy growing up and was very anti-pageant for the longest time.
She particularly excelled in basketball and volleyball at school, and won a gold medal in the Kuala Lumpur International Schools athletics meet.
She started modelling at 15, as a catwalk and print model in Kuala Lumpur and London, but took a hiatus from modelling in 2004 to further her studies in Brisbane.
Anti-pageant? I repeat, my eyebrows raised. No, seriously,” she says, eyes widening. “I started modelling at an early age, but I was very sceptical about the industry in the beginning. However, it did give me opportunities to travel, live abroad and meet people. Later though, I wanted to pursue something more intellectual and so I entered university.”
She later went on to study Economics and Political Science, which further solidified her desire to work with disadvantaged communities and help create for them more opportunities and platforms to break out of their crippling circumstances.
While in University, Deborah volunteered with various non-profit organisations including various soup kitchens, the Wesley Hospital breast cancer unit, establishing Open Doors, a non-profit company set to raise funds for sustainable development projects that focus on poverty eradication, and even volunteering with Yayasan Chow Kit, a foundation that aims to protect the rights of at-risk children and youth.
“Dr Hartini Zainudin, the founder of Yayasan Chow Kit has been a mentor of sorts to me,” she confides softly. “You need to find your calling, as in anything in life. I just knew I wanted to do something.”
Returning to Malaysia after her studies, Deborah was approached by a friend to join the Miss World Pageant back in 2007. Initially hesitant, she eventually saw it as a platform.
“World Vision were the partners of the pageant that year, and Miss World had this phrase ‘Beauty with a purpose’!” she says, laughing heartily.
She was appointed World Vision Malaysia Child’s Rights Advocate in 2007, and has been working with them ever since.
In preparing for the pageant, Deborah came up with a newsletter called Reach Out. “It was back in the days before the dawn of Facebook and social media!” she quips with a laugh.
“I reached out to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who did good work, and we came up with articles, highlighting the needs of the communities. We got these printed out and inserted them in newspapers to be circulated out.”
After reaching out through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) — a United Nations programme with the mandate to protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people — through her Reach Out newsletter, Deborah was soon introduced to the refugee work that they were doing. “That’s when my work with the refugee community began.”
The 34-year-old later took on the challenge again and won the crown as Miss Malaysia Universe in 2011.
“At Miss World, I was 21. I didn’t prepare that much, and placed at top 15. With Miss Universe in 2011, they requested that I return and I prepared myself so well but I didn’t get a placing,” she recalls dryly in a different interview.
Still, she’s grateful that the platforms presented by these world-class pageants provided her the opportunity to raise her profile and speak for the causes she’s passionate about.
MAKING AN EDUCATED DIFFERENCE
A firm believer and advocate of children’s rights, Deborah has been tirelessly working with World Vision Malaysia to draw attention to the plight of child refugees in Malaysia.
For the former beauty queen, refugee children suffer the most. In addition to having survived extreme events, they may be separated from their parents, deprived of basic necessities and education, and are frequently exploited sexually. They need to adjust to new surroundings, new culture and possibly language, and may face an unwelcome reception from inhabitants of their host country.
“A refugee camp is no place for a child to grow up. In addition to inadequate food, shelter and medical services, there are few organised activities, and parents worry about a lost generation of children unable to get a proper education,” she laments.
In 2009, Deborah co-founded a non-profit education hub for over 160 students from Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and Palestine.
Shares Deborah, she was hosting an in-house documentary for UNHCR back in 2008 and she met a Somalian refugee family living in Kuala Lumpur.
“When I first met them, I didn’t just see a family,” she recalls in a different interview. “I saw the effects of having no education, no hope and no support. I left their home that day and told myself: ‘I cannot just walk away from them.’”
Little steps ensued. Deborah and her university friend Shikeen Halibullah started giving English and Mathematic lessons to a small group of Somali refugee children.
In 2009, they expanded their operations by partnering with a private tuition centre (Save Education Centre) ran by Somali refugee Shafie Mohamed.
The centre, she explains, essentially recognises that refugee children in Malaysia do not have access to education.
“So we started Fugee School to give this access, and we provide the whole spectrum of education which includes academic lessons, extra-curricular activities, emotional support and even the means to earn a livelihood,” elaborates Deborah.
Over 500 children have come through the doors of Fugee School, says Deborah proudly. The centre currently has about 200 students and Fugee School have expanded to include tertiary options as well as a social enterprise selling jewellery and accessories crafted by the refugee students in an effort to keep the school sustainable.
“We started off doing just one thing, but it kind of snowballed and now we’re doing almost everything!” she muses, chuckling.
Education, believes Deborah, holds the key to transformation. On another trip with World Vision, she had the opportunity to meet a family with two daughters (one in her late teens and the other in her early twenties).
The elderly father had tears in his eyes as he said: “If it wasn’t for World Vision, my two daughters would be married by now with at least two children.”
Recognising that there was something better out there, the father realised that education would transform their lives.
“One daughter is in school while the other is completing her degree at university,” she recounts, adding: “The transformation in that family gives me goosebumps. The impact of education is generational.”
Without the chance of a decent education, refugee children know their future is slipping away. Their concerns are echoed by Deborah: how to educate children displaced in emergencies is a problem that has never been more urgent.
“Education provides children with safety, a sense of normalcy and the skills they need to bounce back from adversity. It can save and help rebuild young lives,” she says.
Figures published by the UN show that at the end of 2017, there were 68.5 million forcibly displaced people across the globe. 16.2 million people were newly displaced during the course of the year. Half of all refugees are children – and once you’re a refugee, you’re likely to stay a refugee for a very long time.
According to the UN High Commission for Refugees report, on average, a refugee spends 17 years of his or her life in exile.
“For a child, that’s their entire primary and secondary education gone,” says Deborah sadly.
The long-term ramifications are huge. Not being able to access education is an individual disaster for every affected child. But for fragile states struggling to establish enough stability and security to enable traumatised populations to return home and start to rebuild, millions of people going without education becomes a national catastrophe.
Education is not only a fundamental right; it is one of the most valuable assets a refugee can have, she reiterates.
Refugee children and adolescents who are integrated into national school systems build lasting friendships with local children, learn languages, and develop vital skills they need to sustain themselves and their families.
For refugee children, school can be a safe place where they can learn and play — basic necessities for any child growing up, but especially important for those that have been torn from their homes and seen the horrors of war.
“It really comes down to our humanity,” says Deborah candidly. “Treating this group of people with dignity, giving them a chance at starting afresh, and helping them integrate into our society. It’s part of who we are as Malaysians – hospitable, warm and friendly. We can do better as a nation and we must make a difference.”