Not many 18-year-olds would think of starting a non-profit organisation for refugees while balancing their studies but friends Heidy Quah and Andrea Prisha did just that seven years ago.
In 2012, Quah and Andrea decided to volunteer their time teaching at the Chin Children’s Education Centre, a Myanmar refugee school in Sungai Besi, Kuala Lumpur. Soon after, they found out that the school would be closing down due to lack of funds.
They both shared the conviction that something had to be done and in September the same year, they set up Refuge for the Refugees (RFTR).
“We saw a need and an urgency to meet a need. There wasn’t enough people then meeting the needs of refugees and hence we decided to do so, instead of waiting for the gap to be bridged,” shares Quah, 25.
The goal of the non-profit organisation is to help raise the standard of living of refugee children, provide aid to refugee schools, and raise awareness about the state of refugees as well as the importance of education for the children.
Currently, RFTR supports 35 learning centres in Malaysia, each with 60 to 80 kids. In 2016, it also started a school in Myanmar and today, supports 25 centres there.
Is Quah happy with RFTR’s achievements and progress so far?
“Yes, we are definitely happy with the progress. While we’ve definitely made plenty of mistakes over the past six years, it has been such a learning and defining season for the team. We are where we are today because of the things we’ve learnt and experienced,” says Quah, who was the only Malaysian to receive the Queen’s Young Leader Award in 2017.
The Award celebrates young leaders aged 18 to 29 from Commonwealth countries who make positive changes in people’s lives and communities.
Quah’s vision for RTFR extends beyond education.
“My vision and long-term goal for RFTR is for us to play a bigger role in policy-making for refugees and asylum seekers to ensure that they have equal access to basic rights such as education, job opportunities and healthcare,” says Quah, who joined DAP last year.
When the going gets tough, a strong sense of responsibility pushes the accounting and finance graduate forward.
“Understanding that my conviction needs to be stronger than my emotions is what keeps me going. I do what I do because it’s my responsibility.
“When I talk about responsibility, it’s not the responsibility that comes with the titles I carry – whether it is being the founder and director of Refuge For The Refugees or as an activist,” says Quah, who also conducts leadership training in universities and companies.
“The responsibility I’m talking about is my responsibility, as much as it is anyone else’s, which is to love your neighbour as yourself, to be a voice for the voiceless and to lend a helping hand to the helpless,” she emphasises.