Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – For most of her life, Nawa watched as other children went to school. As a refugee and a girl at that, she was told there was no place for her in the classroom.
That looked set to continue when she arrived in Malaysia, where refugees do not have access to formal education under the national school system. But thanks to a refugee learning centre in Kuala Lumpur called Fugee School, the Somali refugee was able to start her first-ever lessons at an age when her peers were graduating from secondary school.
“I spent 16 years not having access to education and wanting to learn so badly. When I first got my backpack to start Fugee School, I would literally put it on and stare at the mirror just imagining myself as a student,” she laughs. “I started in fifth grade with classmates who were 10 years old or younger. They made fun of me but I tried to ignore it.”
With just spoken Somali and a rudimentary grasp of English, she failed every class in the first month. But she was determined to learn and quickly caught up, skipping grades as she went along.
“It’s unbelievable how much I learnt in four years,” says Nawa, now 20. “What drives me is that I’m the only person in my family to have access to education and to have gotten this far. I also want to be an example to other women who are afraid to achieve the things they
A strong advocate of women’s rights, she is happy to see more girls than boys in Fugee School now – a reversal of the trend when she first started in 2013. She’s observed that girls do better in class as they choose to study, unlike boys who are prioritized for school in some cultures and who take it for granted.
While she acknowledges that some girls drop out due to early marriage, that trend also seems to be changing. “Before in Somalia, we would have girls who get married at the age of 12, 14. Now we have so many girls who are aged 20 and above and still not married, and I’m like, ‘Yes!’”
Last year Nawa graduated with an International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) and was accepted to study at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, where she is doing her foundation course. She is one of 42 refugee students currently enrolled in three universities in Malaysia as a result of strong advocacy with tertiary institutions by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
While grateful for the opportunity, Nawa feels a knowledge gap between her and her new Malaysian classmates. “Refugees have been through war and been forced to move so much, so our education is not stable. We have to do extra work and work harder than the locals,” she says.
She continues to volunteer at Fugee School, teaching pre-school refugee children three days a week to help them bridge the gap. “My students spoke no English in the beginning. But they learn so fast and now they speak better than me,” she beams. “Here they have the tools to learn – phones, computers, videos, the internet.”
Nonetheless Nawa is fully aware of the challenges facing Fugee School and some 120 other learning centres around Malaysia that are largely run by refugees themselves with the support of volunteers.
“As refugees the only access we have to education is through the learning centres. They’re working as hard as they can, getting donations, books, qualified teachers. But it may not be really enough for students to achieve the things they want,” she says.