It is common knowledge that refugees in Malaysia are without legal status, preventing them from accessing basic rights such as employment, education and healthcare. They are forced to flee their home countries, embark on perilous journeys in search of safety, and finally wind up here, where life is made unnecessarily difficult for them.
NGOs, shelters and the like, are constantly trying to improve their livelihoods, and to hold dialogues with the government. Their unrelenting work has helped anchor the lives of refugees all over Malaysia. However, one particular NGO had caught our attention.
Women For Refugees (WFR), an NGO founded by two young women in their early 20s, has been working on empowering and upskilling refugee women and marginalised communities. GoodNews caught up with Arissa and Davina to learn how they’ve been furthering this cause and uplifting these women.
As we began chatting, it was clear both girls shared an incredible bond. Arissa mentioned how their whole friendship was about their love for dialogue. They were always able to have conversations about global issues and topics they could not talk about with other people.
“We sat down and decided to put all this passion and determination into one specific cause. When analysing the situation locally, we identified that the most vulnerable people in Malaysia are refugees,” Arissa said.
Davina added that both of them would volunteer with organisations together and spent time understanding the landscapes. When a community approached them in August last year, saying they have women who could benefit from an upskilling programme, the girls realised that this was a wonderful opportunity to come together and run something.
“This was how WFR began. But it was months in the making and involved lots of learning before Arissa and I decided to take the leap and start it officially,” Davina said. The duo spent lots of time actually speaking and working with these women to understand exactly what they needed.
WFR stood out from the other NGOs working with refugees due to its youthful team. Arissa and Davina spearhead a team of young students who handle the daily operations of the organisation.
Proving to us all that age is not a deterring factor, WFR brings something unique to the table in aiding the refugee community.
Davina explains that their target is refugee women specifically, and there are certain nuances in their lives that need to be addressed. WFR targets the economic perspective. They posit that investing in the refugee community in Malaysia brings a lot of value, benefitting the refugee community, and locals as well.
“We want to train and empower them so that they can have financial freedom and are self-sustaining,” Davina said.
Their NGO runs three programmes; The Comfort Project, which provides medical aid to this community and Food for Thought involving distributions of food and sanitation packages. They have fundraised to carry out these initiatives and have successfully run three massive food drives.
These projects have aided around 80 families living within that community. These 80 families consist of migrants, refugees and B40 families.
Their flagship initiative is the Refugee Women Entrepreneurship Programme (RWEP) which works on building financial, digital, literacy and leadership skills. Davina and Arissa believe that with these skills, the women within this community will be able to develop their own business initiatives, and eventually become financially independent.
“We’re hoping to continuously develop RWEP to ensure these women are able to make money from their initiatives and gain empowerment from the leadership they take on,” Davina adds.
The RWEP initiative is more advanced and would require these women and children to have basic literacy levels. Currently it involves about 10 women and 5-6 of their children. The team has noticed a significant improvement in their literacy skills since the RWEP initiative began.
When the third wave of this pandemic hit, Arissa explained how it forced them to invest in digital literacy. “No matter what we tried, we always had to go back to technology,” Arissa told.
However, teaching these women digital literacy online continues to be an uphill challenge. With poor internet connection and their difficulties figuring out how to use keyboards, it has not been easy for both sides.
“We tried to get them used to Google docs and Google sheets. For example, I’d ask them to send us a list of all the women in the community through these applications – this would also increase their leadership skills and in turn heighten their sense of empowerment,” Arissa explains.
Davina recalls how it was a logistical nightmare to move all their material online. It’s still an ongoing problem but the women’s enthusiasm in learning these skills made it worthwhile. Looking at it from a glass half full perspective, they said the pandemic forced them to change the way they run things but these women have come out of it learning vital new skills
The women in this community mostly use their phones for these classes, however they do share one community laptop.
When asked how they managed to keep these operations running even through the lockdown, Arissa said, “We’ve gotten this far because of the allies we have, both publicly and internally. We have an amazing support system that aided us in securing groceries and all the items that we were able to send over before MCO, and even during MCO. It was overwhelming when the MCO hit but as an NGO, we could not have gotten so far without our allies.”
Davina and Arissa both expressed how grateful they are for their team at WFR. They explained how their team is the reason they’ve both had the bandwidth to take all this on.
“Our team has taken so much initiative, it’s not just a volunteering thing for them. They’re very hands on and to me, this is truly one of the best things about WFR,” Davina said.
In describing what it has been like for the community during this period, Davina explains how it’s hard to put a blanket statement over this but whatever you read and watch about the plight of refugees is applicable to this community.
“Lack of financial aid, lack of sanitation, medical aid difficulties – all of this leading to health problems.”
WFR hopes to set up a community space in the next couple of months, equipped with good WiFi, education and so on. This will make it easier for the organisation to keep track of them, so they can sit with these families and see how they can further help.
To understand what motivates these girls to keep fighting for the cause, we asked them to share an experience that particularly moved them.
Arissa’s story involves a baby and endless determination:
“Before WFR, a big case I handled was a baby. He was born at home and was sick and tiny. I took them to the hospital and had to even fight with the nurses. If I wasn’t there, the refugee mum would be overwhelmed with blame. I understand to a certain extent the hospital’s perspective when dealing with patients who have no documents. But I realised that there was a massive gap between understanding the reality of a refugee and the medical services. That was one of my biggest motivations to get more involved with the refugee movement and then I pushed for WFR.”
With Arissa’s help, the baby successfully got his UNHCR card a day later, when refugees usually have to wait 2-3 years.
“This made me realise that things move when you keep pushing, and that’s when I saw my personal role in this,” Arissa said.
Davina’s experience involves a refugee girl and her wonderful family:
“Before WFR, there was one specific refugee girl we visited, her name is Junaidah. We brought a bunch of stuff to her two-family flat – books, clothes, toys etc. She invited us in and what hit me the most was how hospitable the entire family was. Despite her mother not being able to speak English, she insisted on sitting down and telling us stories. She got Junaidah to translate. Junaidah’s little brother, who was playing with the toys we brought him, even offered us the toys he was playing with. Despite how little they had, they were extremely kind and giving.”
The young Junaidah herself hopes to be a doctor one day.
Davina explains how in Malaysia, the refugee narrative is always an ‘Us vs Them’ problem. But when you sit down and talk to them, you realise there’s no barrier. They’re exactly the same as us and they feel the same things we do.
When people with so little can continue to give, there is zero excuse for everyone else. Watching her and her family, Davina felt there was no gap between them. Junaidah was not a charity case, she was a friend they cared about.
“My vision is for this to be translated across the board – for the refugee community and locals. Not this whole narrative that they’re coming in and taking our jobs – we must continuously prove this wrong. It’s sitting down with them and understanding their problems – that brings about real change. Its hard work and it takes time but we don’t want to be another NGO that brushes over the problem. We want to actually play a role,” Davina concluded.
A message Arissa and Davina wanted to share was this: “It’s not easy trying to acknowledge rights of foreigners when you feel like a second class citizen in your own country but WFR hopes to push that there is a middle ground to be found and Malaysians can become more receptive and open minded.”
These inspiring young women are the embodiment of the phrase ‘humanity prevails over all.’ They have selflessly put in time and effort in to this cause despite having to face difficulties given their age. Arissa and Davina are determined not to let such things hold them back.
It is abundantly clear that they don’t mind going through a few hurdles if it means bringing about a sustainable and safe environment for refugee women and marginalised communities in Malaysia.
Their stories have shown us how refugees have to fight for survival every day of their lives and are constantly exposed to dangerous realities. Although these are trying times for us all, it’s comforting to know that people like Arissa and Davina are still fighting to ensure a more inclusive Malaysia for all.
If these two young women have inspired you to lend a hand, you can reach out to them via Instagram and their other social media platforms (@WomenForRefugees). Their team is looking to recruit more people who can utilise their technical skills to help them expand in the long run.