By Free Malaysia Today

Ishak, 15, on the verge of turning life around, 8 years after coming to Malaysia as a refugee, thanks to determination to learn.

PETALING JAYA: Carrying his mother’s hopes and dreams in his heart, a Rohingya teenager is showing why nothing can get in the way of ambition and hard work.

Simply known as Ishak, this child refugee has overcome racial discrimination, financial constraints and the challenge of not going through a normal education system, to excel in both his studies and in sports.

“My mother believes that education can make life better. But she never told me that I should be a doctor or anything like that. She simply wants me to be ‘a successful person’.

“She told me ‘get a degree so that you can stand in public, so that you have your own identity’,” Ishak, 15, said in an interview published on the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) website yesterday.

The weight of his family’s expectations is compounded by the fact that he could possibly be the only one in his family to complete his education.

“My older brother had to give up school to support the family. Now, it takes a lot of money for me to go to school. We have to pay fees, for transport,” Ishak said.

Ishak has come a long way since arriving in Malaysia eight years ago, at the age of seven, with his brother and parents, from Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

The emotional scars of the life he left still remain though.

“Back home (Myanmar), the kids in pre-school used to tease me for my skin colour.

“They called me black and asked why I was there. But the teachers were very supportive and would always explain why that was wrong,” Ishak said of the racial discrimination that he had to face at a very young age.

Parallel system of education

Life is tough for a child refugee, with no access to the national education system, but Ishak has made the most of an opportunity too often denied to school-age refugees.

Thanks to the UNHCR, its NGO partners and the refugee communities themselves, there is a parallel system of education.

Ishak has grown up with the help of the community learning centres set up for refugees and asylum-seekers throughout Malaysia.

These centres struggle with limited funding and over-crowded classrooms that have few resources. Not to mention the high turnover of teachers and students dropping out for financial or cultural reasons.

The opportunities to make it through every level and pursue higher education is very limited but Ishak now has a real shot at breaking the cycle of displacement and poverty.

According to the UNHCR report, even when his family’s funds ran low, the learning centre had initially lowered the fees his parents had to pay, and later found a sponsor for Ishak.

Now, the learning centre has become like a second home for Ishak, where he is able to enjoy his favourite subjects, namely mathematics, physics and accounts.

He also appreciates that he is culturally-enriched by having classmates from all over the world but recognises that the moment is fleeting.

“I know that my friends are not here forever. Some are getting resettled, some are going back to their own country, some just drop out because they can’t afford it.

“I know that we are all special, and this is a special moment that I have to cherish.”

Dignity for Children Foundation

After eight years at the learning centre, Ishak is now at the equivalent of a Form 4 education level, having scored straight As, and is just a year away from his International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) exams.

Knowing his responsibilities and recognising the contributions of his teachers at the learning centre, Ishak said he hopes to return to the learning centre as a volunteer after his graduation, teaching his juniors or helping in the sports department.

The learning centre Ishak is referring to is under the Dignity for Children Foundation, which runs one of the most comprehensive education programmes for the urban poor in Malaysia, from pre-school to secondary level and vocational training.

The Foundation also provides the refugees with quality education as part of its provision to the marginalized urban poor.

Meanwhile, Ishak’s passion for sports is demonstrated through his centre’s football team, challenging for the Faisal Cup, an annual sports meet between refugee learning centres in Malaysia.

“My dream is to play football for Manchester United, my favourite club. If possible I want to represent a country.

“But it will be difficult for me to do that here. I plan to study engineering as a backup, so that I can support myself and my family in the future if I cannot fulfil that (football) dream,” Ishak said.