Last month I spent five weeks at Sentang School in Kuala Lumpur, an elementary school for stateless Chin children from Myanmar, as part of my role with Mettamorphosis. The children who attend Sentang School are refugees from the Chin ethnic minority of Myanmar. Persecuted by the government because of their Christian religion, they make the difficult journey to the UNHCR processing centre in Kuala Lumpur to receive refugee status.
Once in Kuala Lumpur, they are stateless until they are resettled in a host country. The time this takes is variable and living as a stateless refugee in Kuala Lumpur places a great deal of stress on individual mental health and physical safety. As stateless children don’t have access to government education centres in Malaysia, they often attend church-run schools. Mettamorphosis supports one of these schools. To do this, we liaise with a Chin community leader called Nunu, who uses her personal social networks to find out the needs and wants of the community. We then provide a portion of the resources to make those things happen. While I was in Kuala Lumpur, the kids and I painted a mural and I interviewed them about their views on going to school and living in Kuala Lumpur as refugees.
The experiences I had in Kuala Lumpur emphasised two things for me. The first of these is that the world is never as simple as we’d like it to be. Like anyone beginning a trip, I had quite a lot of expectations about what I’d learn from my time in Kuala Lumpur. Like most expectations, they were proved wrong quite quickly. My recently finished undergraduate degree had taught me a lot about “critical thinking”, but didn’t necessarily have the capacity to prepare me for the practical application of what I’d been learning. My ideas were far more simplistic than could be relevant to the real world context. What was more relevant was my ability to understand the socio-political factors at play in Kuala Lumpur, and try to make my presence worthwhile in that space.
An example of a moment that challenged my assumptions was in an interview with the kids. I asked the classwhether they preferred living in Myanmar or Malaysia. Based on assumptions surrounding their refugee status and the trauma commonly involved with refugee journeys, I wrongly presumed they would prefer to live in Myanmar, since this was their home. While this was the case for half the students, half also said that they prefer Kuala Lumpur, their reasoning being that in Kuala Lumpur they have the opportunity to learn English at school. Studying English at school is seen as a gateway to future opportunities. When asked why they like studying, one student stated in certain terms that he liked it because he wants to be the president of the United States. For those students, they had been forced to flee from their home (and, in many cases, family) because the government in Myanmar persecuted the religion of their minority. Yet despite this, for some students the opportunities available in Kuala Lumpur outweighed this, showing us that displacement is rarely simple and always multifaceted.
I made a habit to spend time each day reading literature that built on my previous research and discussed the issues I had experienced throughout that day, and gradually the time spent at the school and the research at home formed a cohesive picture of the factors involved in the complex relationship between the Malaysian government, the Chin refugee population, and the refugee support networks of churches and non-governmental organisations.
Every day I saw instances of this support from the refugee networks. In the classroom these examples were countless. From the older students translating complex words into the Chin dialect for the young students, to a male student pulling the hand of his friend down so that one of the quieter girls would have a chance to speak. Watching each child care for and ensure the representation of their community gave me an insight into the power of community networks in fostering resilience for stateless individuals. It is also a testament to the Chin community that the generation being raised without a state and persecuted by the state they inhabit will grow into adults that would be an asset to any community.
As well as supplementing my experiences with research, I also drew on support form within the organisation. Marilyn Metta, the director of Mettamorphosis, was open to Skype talks and debriefing sessions about what I’d been doing, and for that I’m immensely grateful. She provided strong support and reassurance at times when I felt a little out of my depth.
As well as the complexity of the refugee experience, my experiences also reaffirmed my belief that Mettamorphosis has a valuable role to play in supporting the Chin refugee community in Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia is a highly diverse multi-ethnic society, and to a large extent the daily life of individuals in Kuala Lumpur is highly ethnicised. This is for a few reasons; ethnic groups are largely religiously divided; the National Development Policy of 1990-2000 separates legislation by ethnicity; and the ruling government strongly represents Malay interests in policymaking. The total population of Malaysia was 28.6 million in 2010, with the population of refugees and asylum seekers living in Kuala Lumpur at 171,500 in 2009. Of the refugees and asylum seekers living in Kuala Lumpur, a majority are from Myanmar.
Immediately on arriving in Kuala Lumpur, these ethnic divisions are starkly visible, and their variety brings a great deal of complexity to the everyday political workings within the city. In the case of the Chin refugees living in Kuala Lumpur, on the one hand this phenomenon contributes to strong discourse demonising refugees, but on the other also results in an incredibly strong social and resource network for the Chin people. The Chin Christian Church network provides social, cultural, financial, and legal frameworks for Chin refugees and asylum seekers living in Kuala Lumpur.
The nature of Mettamorphosis places us in a good position to move past the challenge this complexity poses. We are a small scale, diversely staffed organisation with a great deal of combined experience working in refugee issues in the South-East Asian region. That means we can cater the support we give to the specific wants and needs of the Chin refugee community in Kuala Lumpur. As the Chin community has such a successful and sustainable model self-support, the role of Mettamorphosis is largely to deliver resources to the community. The small-scale involvement of a not-for-profit is a transferable model that, on a broader scale, highlights the possibility for meaningful success in the education of stateless children globally.
Mettamorphosis Intern from 2016