Schooling for Rohingya children in Penang


Sixty gain education – and hope – at Peace Learning Centre while their parents seek illegal work.

When the Burma Citizenship Law was enacted in 1982, 800,000 Rohingya were left stateless because it no longer recognised them as citizens. Stateless and vulnerable to abuse, they were subject to forced labour, harassment, rape, arbitrary land seizure and destruction of property.


Sofi*, who was 15 years old then, ran away from Maungdaw with his mother and siblings after the 2012 Rakhine State riot. “My father came to Penang in 2009. The boat fare was RM6,000 and he had to raise the funds for it by borrowing money from friends and relatives. As soon as he arrived in Penang, he found jobs in construction sites and raised enough money to send for my mother, my sister and me in 2013. It takes about five to 15 days to arrive in Penang, depending on the weather and the skill of the boat captain. The boat I was in took 15 days to arrive in Penang. It was very cramped and dirty. I was so happy to be off it.”

As UNHCR refugees, the Rohingya here are granted freedom of movement without fear of getting locked up by the local authorities. However, they have little or no access to education and employment.

This is where NGO Peace Learning Centre steps in: it tries to close the gap by providing basic education exclusively for Rohingya child refugees. Established in 2013, the centre started in a local madrasah before relocating to a doublestorey house in Gelugor to cater to its increasing number of students. Sixty children, aged five to 16, attend the school from Monday to Friday. Besides educating the children, the centre also keeps them off the streets and equips them with skills and knowledge that would give them a better chance of being relocated to a third country. Many children from centres such as this have, together with their families, been successfully relocated to a third country, such as the US.


The realities of refugees
According to Dewi Karina, manager of the school, the Rohingya communities in Penang can be found in Bukit Jambul, Jelutong, Bayan Baru and Bayan Lepas, where rental for flats is cheaper. Some families even share accommodation with other families. The men would look for work illegally in places such as construction sites and coffee shops, or run a small business selling scraps or fresh produces. The women usually stay at home to care for younger children or take odd jobs as nannies.


Some of the kids work as well: “Whenever Sofi is absent, I know that his father is ill. Sofi has to work in a nearby nasi kandar shop for RM30 per day. He also supplements the income by selling sireh. While I prefer to have him here in school learning, this is the reality for the children; they must be the breadwinners whenever their fathers are sick,” says Dewi.

To Sofi and other children, Peace Learning Centre is the only place where they have access to basic education. To emulate the atmosphere of a public classroom, the rooms are equipped with blackboards and notice boards. Each student is provided with a black t-shirt with the words “School of Peace” emblazoned on the back, but some of the children wear the white and navy blue uniform of the Malaysian public primary school to experience what it feels like to be in a real school.

Lessons are conducted in Bahasa Malaysia, and exams are held monthly. The children are taught to read, write and solve basic arithmetic. Recently, they have been introduced to English, with lessons currently conducted by American expatriate Laura Reese.

Dewi Karina, school manager.

Reese was working for a Silicon Valley semiconductor company in Penang. After leaving her job earlier this year, she decided to help at the Rohingya refugee community. “I applied on the UNHCR website to volunteer. Soon, UNHCR contacted me with an English teaching job at Peace Learning Centre and I submitted all the necessary forms,” says Reese. “As far as I can tell, having worked at the school for about a month now, the curriculum falls short of providing a path to an adequate high school diploma, much less a path to university. And that’s really sad, because the children here are smart, eager and full of energy. Given the proper direction and instruction, they have the potential to lead healthy, happy and highly educated lives.”


I ask Sofi what his ambition is. He says he wants to be a policeman. But how can he contribute to society when he can’t find employment legally? “This is the struggle of the refugees,” says Dewi. “There are a lot of uncertainties and a lot of waiting. The future for them is unknown and waiting to be relocated to a third country could take years or decades.”

Even the future of the school is uncertain. Existing solely on public donations and monetary sponsorship from the UNHCR, the school operates on RM5,400 per month, which is insufficient for long-term maintenance. Funds are constantly required to pay the teachers and rent, and for books and stationeries.

But support from local NGOs and individuals have given hope to Peace Learning Centre. Several NGOs are currently providing free mobile clinic services for the centre. Later this year, socio-political activist and writer Marina Mahathir and her nephew, Izzat Adha, will be raising funds to provide the school with better facilities in the form of desks, books, stationeries and a mini library. Marina and Izzat are also working with RapidPenang to create student passes for the children to help them with their daily commute to school.

Notice boards to emulate local classroom environments.

“I am delighted that the centre continues to get attention and support from various individuals and groups,” says Dewi. “Life as a refugee is difficult; not only do the children need education but, more importantly, they need hope and a sense of dignity to move on. As long as support continues to trickle in, we will provide education to these children. We believe that no child should be denied an education. They are innocent, and this war is not theirs to fight.”

To protect the privacy of the people in this article, names marked with asterisks have been changed.

Peace Learning Centre is located at 56, Cangkat Minden and can be contacted at +6012 420 8054 (Dewi) or via email at Peace Learning Centre encourages the public to help the school through donations or volunteering assignments.

Emilia Ismail is a freelance writer. She blogs at


Related Articles

Apr 2016

The Cherished Clubs of Penang

Sports and recreational clubs abound in the state.

Sep 2013

Housing maintenance in Penang

Housing maintenance in Penang needs some crucial restructuring and rethinking.

Aug 2010

The serious brain drain problem

Penang's talent are leaving in droves. What's causing this exodus, and how can we fix it?

Nov 2011

The sour fate of Kampung Pokok Asam Jawa

For the villagers of Kampung Pokok Asam Jawa, time is quietly running out.