Through the eyes of a refugee child

loading Beggar on wheelchair by Jazz, 16.

Refugee children are nonentities to most of us. They are quite invisible in our daily lives. Kamal Solhaimi Fadzil, however, aims to provide us with glimpses into their world through photographs and essays – produced by the children themselves.

When Universiti Malaya anthropology lecturer Kamal Solhaimi Fadzil began his project last year, he was not sure it would get anywhere. It seemed a tough job, and perhaps even a futile one, to teach refugee children to take photographs.

After all, they come from truly difficult life situations that gave them little scope to dabble in luxuries like photography. On top of that, the 12 to 15 kids had only one camera – Kamal’s old one – to share among them. If they came back with really bad photos, the project would come to an end there and then.

Fishmonger in Chow Kit market by Shamila, 14.

But they surprised him. Some of the kids turned up with astoundingly good photos which captured scenes from their lives and of people around them. It was an amazing insight into what they considered important. “They were brilliant photos!” Kamal said. “We wanted their view of the world, one that is not led by us. And we got it.”

Seeing the potential in their work, the photography class became a much bigger project. Some of the photographs were turned into postcards and sold to fund the programme; some also starred in an exhibition at a shopping mall last year.


A second and bigger exhibition is now in the pipeline. Slated to be held in the Universiti Malaya gallery in the Chancellery building this December, it will showcase the photographs alongside a coffee table book to raise funds for the programme.

The aim is to disperse prejudice against refugee children and to raise awareness about their rights to education – and to a childhood. Exhibitions may be a tried and tested method but the message here is actually a pretty radical one: it plans to showcase these children as young people with aspirations and hopes, and with useful skills and abilities.

Too often, refugees are featured as victims, coming across as scroungers to a public already fatigued by the endless needs of society’s other vulnerable people. This exhibition will instead give a glimpse of the joys and hopes that they have despite tough circumstances, and a sense of their potential and desire to make their lives better.

Homeless sleeping on bench by Shafiq, 13.

The exhibition will be a demonstration of their voice. We hope it will help advocate the rights of refugee children – their right to a safe environment, to education and to a voice.

“There is a need to humanise refugees, and we can do that by telling their stories,” Kamal said. “It’s a start in engaging Malaysians on the broader issues of vulnerable children. In this case, it is refugee kids, but it can easily be orang asli children or inner city kids as well.”

From a project that Kamal thought wouldn’t go far, it has now come a long way indeed. It started out by chance when a friend of his suggested that he run a project with refugee children who were attending school at Yayasan Chow Kit, located in the Chow Kit neighbourhood.

Yayasan Chow Kit was set up by the government in 2006 as a drop-in centre for at-risk children and now runs three programmes: a nursery for children aged up to four, an activity centre for those aged five to 12, and KL Krashpad for those aged 13 to 18.

Funded by government and corporate foundations, it’s a friendly place where the children can drop by for activities or just to hang out away from the streets. For refugee children, the centre also runs an “alternative learning programme” or, in other words, “school”, said Pusenti Maniam, the manager of KL Krashpad. Kamal’s photography class is run for the older children. It began when Pusenti suggested that Kamal do a project with the children. As an anthropologist, Kamal was interested in their search for identity and thought that photography would be a way to engage them on this topic.

And so, he taught them the basics of using a camera: exposure, shutter speed, aperture, composition, etc. It was difficult at first. The kids got bored easily, and some even fought in class. Kamal decided to make full use of the children’s natural energy and exuberance. He got his cousin, Maslita Rezal, to help him run activities related to living skills, language, martial arts, etc.

Homeless man by Ardian, 13.

As time went by, they grew to like photography and soon began going out to take pictures on their own, either with his camera or their mobile phones. Kamal told them to take any photos they like. “The photos were brilliant! I even had to ask if it was their own work or taken from the Internet,” he said.

For sure, the photos weren’t technically outstanding but they had soul and told stories that are rarely heard. They showed the tough life that these children and many Malaysians lead. There were shots of homeless people looking blankly at them or at their surroundings.

Prawns for sale by Sunlama, 15.

But most shots were happy ones: one showed the children playing by a drain near a rundown wooden house, a reflection of their innate resilience. Their families, the market, shopping malls and schools also featured largely in their works.

Kamal said the children have now begun a project to write stories about their photos. The essays and photos will be printed in a coffee table book produced by the children together with graphic designer Nizam Abdul Hamid, Yayasan Chow Kit and UMCares, the university’s community arm.

“The exhibition will be a demonstration of their voice,” he said. “We hope it will help advocate the rights of refugee children – their right to a safe environment, to education and to a voice.”

He hopes these photographs will encourage more Malaysians to see these children with new eyes, and that refugee children should have a childhood too.

Carolyn Hong is a journalist who spent her days racing to keep up with Malaysia as it changes at a breakneck pace over the last few years. Now she is on a slow journey to explore its little corners especially in Sabah and Sarawak.

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