It began with Project ABCPeggy Loh
Rohingya children from 46 families in Kota Tinggi wanted to learn but the legalities stood in their way. Then some Malaysians got involved with these ‘outsiders’ in their midst. Peggy Loh has the story
|The seniors are grateful for the opportunity to study and hope the next step in education will not be closed to them. — Pictures courtesy of Mary Fernandez |
|The Rohingya have learnt discipline and good manners under the guidance of the school’s administration, represented by (from left) SIJB president-elect Liza Alip, head teacher Tang Yau Kuang and SIJB president Mary Fernandez. |
AFTER abnormal heavy rainfall throughout the week of Dec 18, 2006, a series of floods hit Johor and by the third week of January 2007, much of the state was swamped by massive floods. Urban areas were flooded and Kota Tinggi and Segamat were completely cut off. Various international non-governmental organisations and individuals came forward to provide aid.
Among the first on the ground was the Johor Baru Soroptimist International Club (SIJB).
As the floods subsided and rescue missions turned into rehabilitation programmes, SIJB president Mary Fernandez was approached by a Kota Tinggi church member to look into the plight of Rohingya children from about 46 families in that area.
Since Malaysia did not sign the 1951 Refugees Convention, the Rohingyas who had arrived in Johor were not allowed to settle here and their children could not attend government schools.
Aware that education was vital for children and that the children of these 46 families were not in any school, Fernandez wrote to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for permission to start a school for them in Kota Tinggi.
In November 2007, a memorandum of understanding was signed with UNHCR for "Project ABC" and SIJB started a school in a surau.
For about six months, 61 Rohingya pupils between the ages of 6 and 15, had classes sitting on the surau's concrete verandah floor.
While the Kota Tinggi Rotary Club contributed towards the extension of the verandah and provided schoolbags, it was hardly an environment that was conducive for learning. So SIJB worked hard to raise funds to acquire a proper place for a school.
With the help of her children, Fernandez raised RM60,000 while SIJB's sister club in Singapore, SI Garden City, obtained a donation of E 2,500 (RM11,150) from the De Beers Foundation.
With these funds, SIJB rented the top floor of a new shophouse in Kota Kechil and renovated it to make four classrooms.
SIJB also employed retiree Tang Yau Kuang, 62, a Mathematics teacher and former discipline master of SK Kota Tinggi Laksamana (originally Government English School) to head the teaching team.
When they moved into their school in May 2008, 65 children were grouped into four classes for age 5 and below, age 6 to 8, age 9 to 11 and age 12 to 15 (the seniors). School hours were between 8am and noon with a 20-minute break.
Project ABC's syllabus had three subjects -- English, Mathematics and Bahasa Melayu -- but the school added a physical exercise class that was held in the corridor's limited space.
"Our main objective is to help the children learn to read and write -- and explain to parents why they have to pay RM5 for each child per month as a commitment fee," said SIJB president-elect Liza Alip.
In February last year, the school was officially launched by Alan Vernon, the UNHCR representative in Malaysia.
Then in July, a computer company in Singapore sponsored four desk-top computers, while SI Garden City Singapore sponsored books, allowing a library to be set up.
While computer usage is limited to the older children to spur them on to learn the English language, all students have access to the library. The teachers are very encouraged to observe that these pupils who came in with zero knowledge can now sit quietly in the library, able to read simple stories in English.
Among the pupils who are progressing well are the Rashid siblings, Siti Zubaidah, 19, Siti Nurhudah, 16, Jamaluddin, 14 and Siti Nurain, 11. Older sister, Siti Zubaidah, who aspires to be a teacher, is given the opportunity to help with the younger classes but SIJB is concerned about the next step of education for youths aged above 16.
SIJB realises that the children are growing up fast and they cannot be financially independent unless they are equipped with a marketable skill.
"It's better to teach them a skill than to let them go into crime," Fernandez said.
Helping the pupils will not end when they are past school-going age, so SIJB is seeking ways to train the youth and equip them with skills in plumbing, carpentry, tailoring, mechanical or electrical wiring.
SIJB was recognised for its contribution to the community and received the 2008 Soroptimist International Region of Malaysia Best Practice Award for the Rohingya school project in Kota Tinggi.
It continues to welcome sponsors because the school operations depend solely on public funds for monthly expenses like staff salary, rental and utilities. SIJB seeks corporate sponsors and volunteers in future projects for pupils and invites interested parties to contact SIJB via email (
) or by telephone (016-741 8577 and 019-771 3877).
Source: The New Straits Times Malaysia.