In the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, 44-year-old Myanmar refugee Hashim Kassim struggles to raise funds to keep his religious school open, while working hard to prepare two bright students for a Quran recitation competition.
Hashim, a refugee for 17 years himself, cares for 200 Myanmar Muslim and Rohingya refugee students. Many are orphans living in his school, with the numbers expanding as Muslim refugees flee violence in Myanmar. Can he raise enough funds to keep his school open and will his students win the Quran competition?
By Jules Ong
When we hear the word refugees, perhaps most of us would think about displaced people in massive refugee camps. But today, more than half of the refugees settle in big cities. In Malaysia, out of the over 100,000 registered refugees in Kuala Lumpur, 90 percent are from Myanmar. The real number may be two or three times higher.
Malaysia has not ratified the United Nations Refugee Convention because it does not want to be duty bound to provide protection for refugees. The government does not make a distinction between an “illegal immigrant” and a refugee or asylum seeker. Hence, a refugee can be arrested and detained by the authorities at will. They are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse and have no recourse to justice. They do not have legal rights to work nor the right to access the free public healthcare and their children cannot go to school.
I first met Hashim bin Kassim, a Myanmar Muslim religious teacher, about three years ago. He came as a refugee via Thailand and worked illegally as a vegetable cart pusher in the largest wholesale market in Kuala Lumpur.
Most Malaysians are not aware that close to 20,000 Myanmar refugees live and work around the central wholesale market sorting out and distributing fresh produce for hundreds of neighbourhood markets throughout the capital.
Forming the underclass of Malaysian society, these urban refugees work the jobs that Malaysians shun. Raids are a common feature in the market area, resulting in mass arrests and even deaths.
When I met Hashim, I knew I had found the main character for my film. He is articulate, expressive and passionate about his cause. We communicated using Malay, the national language of Malaysia, both being our second language. With his newly learned language in his adopted country, Hashim uses the limited vocabulary to great effect, with sounds and gesticulations to express himself.
When Hashim was working in the wholesale market, he noticed many children loitering on their own. They were unwashed, unschooled, and many of them were orphans. Out of compassion, he took in three kids, fed them, cared for them, taught them their ABCs and gave them free Quran lessons. Gradually, he took in more and more, and after 18 years, he established a school, the Madrasah Hashimiah, with 60 lived-in orphans and between 100 to 140 children who come in for daily lessons five times a week.
Being a refugee himself and sustaining a school of 200 kids and 11 paid teachers is no small feat. Hashim works by faith. Though he collects $20 per student from parents who can afford it, every month is a struggle to raise $7,000 to keep the school and orphanage afloat – rent, teacher’s salaries, utility bills, food, clothing, medicine all have to be paid for.
I wanted to tell the story of these people because they are so invisible in our society. Yet they are the cogs and wheels that move the economy. They keep our city clean, plant our food, distribute it, and even build our homes and skyscrapers. Malaysia’s economy benefits from their presence. Many of these refugees may end up being “citizens” of this country eventually, for the UNHCR is unable to resettle a large percentage of them, while more are still arriving.
Some years back, Hashim was among the lucky ones to be offered resettlement by the UNHCR to Australia, but he declined because he wanted to take care of his students. He would rather be a refugee in Malaysia than a citizen of Australia because of his devotion to his school.
My three months researching and filming the story has endeared me to the refugee cause and to the children and teachers in Madrasah Hashimiah. I learnt that despite the uncertainties and hardships they face, they are able to educate their children, raise families, and survive in a hostile climate. This film is about the resilience of the human spirit and miracles that happened along the way. Miracles inspired by faith. Hashim’s School of Hope is a window to the lives, the hopes and dreams of people whose limitations do not stop them from wanting to give their children a better life in a foreign land.
Malaysia is, after all, a land of immigrants and refugees. The ethnic Indonesian, Chinese, Indian and Filipino population are part of the fabric of Malaysian society today. I, being the fourth generation of Straits Chinese lineage, have an identity card to state my citizenship – Malaysian – and I enjoy all the privileges that comes with it. But my great-grandparents struggled when they first arrived to this land before their descendants were accepted as citizens. We form the generations of inter-ethnic mixing that has contributed to the economy, to the rich diversity of culture, foods, languages and traditions that have now become part and parcel of the Malaysian identity.
There are new guests in our country today, and they will eventually become part of us. Hashim’s dream, as was my great grandfather’s, is to finally find a place to call home.