Sole Malaysian Recipient of the Young Leader’s Award from Queen Elizabeth II for NGO Work
Heidy’s tireless and invaluable contributions to the refugee communities in Malaysia has been nothing short of inspiring. Her work in the NGO, Refuge for the Refugees (RFTR), which she co-founded with her best friend, Andrea Prisha, has earned her the Young Leader’s Award from Queen Elizabeth II herself. She started out wanting to raise awareness of refugees in Malaysia, and to give them a fighting chance at having an education. “Malaysia doesn’t follow United Nations’ (UN) conventions and protocols, so refugees here don’t have access to basic education, healthcare and job opportunities. They come here to seek temporary refuge and shelter, and while it’s in a way safer than their home countries, it’s not entirely safe for them either,” she said. “These refugees face a great deal of persecution here, and can’t even walk out of their homes without fear of getting caught and detained by the police. RFTR seeks to raise awareness on their plight, and to educate people to differentiate between asylum seekers and migrant workers.” Heidy and her team provide refugees with entrepreneurial and life skills, to empower them to run their own business programs so they can support themselves and their families. She recently initiated a baking program for refugee children and their mothers, who would bake, and she’d sell the cookies on their behalf. A month before Hari Raya, the business garnered about 1,000 orders. She believes in giving them the chance to make a livelihood for themselves.
The idea for RFTR came about when Heidy, at 17 years of age, taught English at a school in the heart Kuala Lumpur and Sungai Besi. “I wanted to do something meaningful with my time before I started college. I went in thinking I was going to make a difference, but little did I know that it would go the other way around. I received so much more in return – the refugees taught me to fully understand the true meaning of privilege. It’s not about the number of times you travel in a year, the size of your bank account, or the frequency in which you upgrade your gadgets. In the refugee community, privilege is being able to wake up with a safe roof over your head, have three square meals a day, and the peace of mind knowing that you can leave your home without feeling threatened. Four months in, the headmaster told me that the kids would lose their education as they had lost their funding, and wouldn’t be able to afford rental. He said it matter-of-factly, and told me to chase my own opportunities. I felt terrible – these kids were being robbed of their education. I didn’t have to fight for mine, so I wanted to help them in whatever way I could.” Heidy began raising funds for RFTR. Most locals were, and still are not aware of refugees in Malaysia, but they do live amongst us. She and her friend even faced persecution for trying to help the refugees and they were brushed off as idealistic kids who hadn’t a clue of what they were doing. Some people even had the gall to approach their fund-raising booth and tell them to “get a life”, that refugees were here to disrupt the economy, and that they should be helping poor Malaysians instead. “The more we did our research, the more we understood the severity of the problem,” she said.
Now well into its sixth year, RFTR has established 35 schools in Malaysia and Myanmar, and two youth centres and halfway homes. Besides raising awareness, RFTR runs schools 9am to 3pm on weekdays, while Saturdays are reserved for leadership programs to teach entrepreneurship skills. “We’ve also started conducting music classes and life skill workshops like baking, sewing and creating art. I believe that there is power in telling a story through art. We bring these kids to restaurants and cafes to perform – they’re so talented. A few months ago, a representative of ICOM (Malaysia’s leading international music college) even presented our kids with full scholarships.”
Heidy continues to be inspired by her students – by their eagerness to learn and their ability to love and give unconditionally. “In the beginning, all of them couldn’t read or write. Now they speak very well, and some have even become English teachers themselves. Some have gotten full scholarships for college or university.” One of her student’s progress in particular has been the highlight of her teaching career. “After several months, I noticed Honey had stopped attending my class. She had stopped school to work in Berjaya Times Square to support her family. She always asked me for books and reading materials. Towards the end of the year, she was hospitalised in the neuro ward for a long time – it was tuberculosis. The damage went straight to her nerves and affected her brain, which paralysed the entire left side of her body. She couldn’t write, walk and could barely speak. She looked so weak, and it was very discouraging. But over time, she slowly regained her strength. She’d pick up pamphlets around the hospital just to practice her reading. She has so much grit and perseverance, and a hunger for education.” Honey realised that education was more important to her than earning money, and immediately returned to school as soon as she was discharged. She even tied a bandage around her wrist to gain control of her muscles when she wrote. A few weeks later, she received a scholarship, and managed to fill up and print the application on her own. “She has grown so much – I’m amazed to see how far she has come, and our other kids too. She soon entered college, and has now come back full circle. She now has qualifications to work when she settles in other countries.”
Heidy claims that she did not understand love until she started working with the refugees. Despite living in poverty and persecution, they have an immense wholehearted love for people that overflows. “They truly know how to love and honour others. They spend what little money they have making sure we have clean bottled water to drink, and we’re always given a special seat at their weddings and funerals. A little girl once gave me the prettiest bangle she owned, and that just broke my heart,” she said. “I just cannot comprehend how people can give their worst at donation drives, while these refugees give their absolute best.”
“Refugees are abused terribly. I knew a girl who was set on fire and died when she asked her boss to pay her for her work. Even men are raped in detention centres, and are forced to drink water from their toilet bowls – it’s just inhumane, and the authorities get away with it because refugees have no rights.” Heidy plans to change all that by continuing to raise awareness and educate the public to elevate the voice of the refugees. Her ultimate goal is to change the law, to give them opportunities for work, education and healthcare. She has so far helped to write the manifesto, and it is well on its way to becoming a reality.
TEXT & INTERVIEW CLARA SIEW
PHOTOGRAPHY & VIDEOGRAPHY LENSWORK STUDIO
STYLING AZZA ARIF
ART DIRECTION KAREN HOO
VIDEO INTERVIEW & DIRECTION LIRA JAMALUDDIN
MAKEUP SHIYO JOO & CHU FAN USING SHISEIDO
HAIR CKAY LIOW & CODY CHUA
PRESENTED BY BALLY; DE BEERS