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Student Assists Myanmar Refugees in Malaysia

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Alya Shaiful Bahari, SIS/BA ’16, received the AU Scholars and Artists Fellowship Award to study Myanmar refugees in Kuala Lumpur this summer.

Alya Shaiful Bahari, SIS/BA ’16, received the AU Summer Scholars and Artists Fellowship to study Myanmar refugees in Kuala Lumpur this summer. Below, she recounts her experience.

Growing up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I recalled the Golden Triangle—the city’s main shopping and entertainment district—as a playground of middle-upper to high income people. But deep in the crevices of the Golden Triangle lie the undocumented, often transcendent, lives of Kuala Lumpur’s greater population of urban refugees.

The refugees in Kuala Lumpur often live in the central areas of Kuala Lumpur, fending themselves against the fear of persecution and the high cost of living. One of the largest urban refugee populations in Malaysia is the Myanmar refugee community, which consists of the Chin, Kachin, Karenni, Mon, Arakan, and Shan—and Rohingya, depending on one’s political leaning.

Through the implementation of the Coalition of Burma Ethnics, Malaysia (COBEM) and other ethnic organizations, the Myanmar refugees have representatives who help the community. Unfortunately, due to the uncertain status of refugees in Malaysia as well as a lack of funding, many of their concerns are left unaddressed.

I took an interest in researching the lives of the Myanmar refugees in Kuala Lumpur due to my experience volunteering at the Chin Centre when I was in high school. It was my first time hearing about the Myanmar refugees in Kuala Lumpur and interacting with the Chin students, ages five to 14.

By the time I came to America, I had not been in contact with the organization for a long time. The opportunity to return and learn more about the lives of the Myanmar refugees presented itself in the form of the AU Summer Scholars and Artists Fellowship. My interest was further sparked when I co-lead an Alternative Break trip to Northern India to interact with Tibetan refugees and learn about the social health of the community.

Through the help of my faculty advisor, Professor Adam Auerbach, I planned how I would tackle this research project. I contacted the Alliance of Chin Refugees through my high school teacher, Sally Painter, which allowed me to connect with other organizations. I visited five nonprofits: the Alliance of Chin Refugees, the Kachin School Malaysia, the Organization of Karenni Development, the Kachin Refugee Committee, and the Arakan Refugee Relief Committee. These organizations greatly helped me in my research effort. In total, my partnerships with them allowed me access to more than 60 participants.

As a stranger to the community, the leaders first briefed me about the lives of the Myanmar refugees in Malaysia. Although I tried to remain professional, I felt disheartened by the ill actions of some of my fellow citizens—to the point where I would unconsciously apologize. When I interviewed approximately 60 refugees, the anecdotes from the participants differed greatly but still echoed that of the organization leaders. They confided in me instances of bribery from the Malaysian police, of worker abuse, and sexual harassment.

One of the saddest stories came from a Kachin woman. She was not allowed to give birth at certain Malaysian public hospitals due to her refugee status. Despite this, she managed to give birth at one of those hospitals—but an immigration officer was waiting to send her to a detention camp immediately after her labor.

I heard many more stories of denied access to certain services and the fear of persecution from the participants. All of these can be traced back to Malaysia’s decision not to sign the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, which would have bound it to certain obligations.

During my experience, I learned to become more critical of the discourse on Myanmar refugees in Malaysia, as well as the nation’s migratory policies. In addition, I began to question the issue of identity and social interactions amongst the refugee community in general. All of these issues have propelled me to continue researching migratory and refugee issues, especially in Southeast Asia—where the fluidity of borders attract both benefits and consequences to the region.

I would like to thank the members of the organizations, Professor Auerbach, and my dear parents for supporting me in this endeavor. Without their support, it would have been nearly impossible to get the same quality of research.

Learn more about the AU Summer Scholars and Artists Fellowship: