Expats Volunteering to Teach Refugee Children

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This post was written by Ainsley Young

Living in Kuala Lumpur, one of Asia'a most dynamic cities, means there are many activities for the resident expat. However for some expat's the experience of living overseas means that they are also searching for activities of a more fulfilling kind. Let fellow expat Ainsley Young introduce to a marvellous opportunity to make a real difference.

For expats who wish to volunteer their time, one wonderful area is in education; more specifically, education for refugee children. A particularly under-resourced and understaffed school is the Chin Student Organisation in Kuala Lumpur. The Chin Student Organisation (CSO) is a registered voluntary community organisation whose main aim is to teach Chin refugee children residing in Kuala Lumpur. The Chin people are from one of Myanmar’s most vulnerable and victimised ethnic minority groups, located in the west of the country. Many Chin people have fled persecution and made their way to Malaysia seeking refugee status with the United Nations. Whilst they wait for relocation to other countries such as Australia, the USA,

Canada, or the UK, they must try to live a sustainable life. This is not easy when most refugees arrive in the country with nothing. In March 2005, a small group of dedicated Chin university graduates, living in Kuala Lumpur and also awaiting resettlement, formed CSO to ensure the refugee children continued their education, both academically and spiritually.

The Chin school consists of five learning centres across Kuala Lumpur (Imbi, Loke Yew, Cheras, Sentul and Puchong). They are affiliated with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and are currently run solely by volunteers and donations. There are approximately 500 students enrolled in the CSO. Many of the volunteer teachers are Chin. However, there are a number of volunteers from the expat community who offer their time to teach the children various subjects, though predominantly and most obviously, English.

English is one of the four main subjects taught at the school; the other subjects are mathematics, science, and Chin. It is important for the children to learn English as most of the students will be relocated to English-speaking countries. However, even though the Chin teachers are passionate about ensuring the children are educated in literacy and numeracy, they are equally as devoted to continuing the students’ learning about the Chin people, their language, and their history. Rami Nei Hmung, Head Teacher for the Cheras school, believes it is just as important for the children to understand where they come from as it is to ensure they are prepared for a more formal school environment once they are relocated. Alongside typical academic subjects, Chin students are taught Chin heritage, spirituality, song, and dance.

One expat volunteer who has taught the children at the Cheras school of the CSO is Australian Cheryl Colbey. She started teaching English to a class of 26 students two years ago. Now her class has 12 students, as many of the children have been resettled in countries such as Australia and the USA. Cheryl finds the volunteer work “an extremely rewarding and fulfilling experience.” She says the Chin students are “like little sponges, soaking up everything, from the English language to cultural differences and our Western way of life.” The children are curious about expats and love to learn about their social and cultural habits. From her experience, Cheryl maintains that there are no behavioural issues, although “they can be very shy.” She has formed strong bonds with the Chin people, saying, “Many of the Chin volunteer teachers have become my friends, and Ihave been invited to attend some of their weddings. It didn’t take long for the Chin people to work their way into my heart.”

By having English-speaking volunteer teachers in the classroom, the students are given an opportunity to prepare themselves for resettlement to another country, where they will need to restart their lives. Many children have experienced traumatic events in Myanmar and the CSO is a place of learning, but also a place of security, routine and friendship. The students are given a special kind of pastoral care as many of the Chin teachers

have also undergone similar experiences of displacement and alienation. The Chin teachers are, themselves, waiting for relocation by the United Nations, under a Humanitarian status, and some have been waiting in KL for up to five years. They are dedicated to protecting the refugee children and offering them, according to Ram Nei Hmung, “hope for the future.”


The CSO has a strong relationship with expats living in KL and they have had many volunteers enter their classrooms in order to teach English to the children. However, as an expat’s life is a transient life, volunteers come and go. The CSO is continually looking for new volunteers to assist in the classrooms. Offering time to teach English, mathematics, art, science, music, or any skill to students or to the Chin volunteer teachers is always welcomed and needed. No previous teaching experience is necessary, simply a desire to care and help, for the children. An English lesson would typically run for one hour, or if you have more time, you may decide to teach a couple of lessons.

If teaching is not your forte, then there are other ways to assist the school. By providing goods such as clothing, both summer and winter (for when they resettle), shoes, sporting equipment, furniture and household items, you would be helping many children and their families. Donating food for meals such as bags of rice and vegetables, students can be fed as many children often go without. Or, if you would like to simply sponsor a child (RM10 per month) or buy a child a school uniform (RM30), you will assist in raising much needed funds to keep the children in school and support their self-esteem by having them feel like they are a part of a collective group. Perhaps your child’s school would like to participate by preparing hampers for students, with items such as a toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, etc. There are many ways to help. An expat has much to offer the children of the Chin Student Organisation and your help will assist in creating further “hope for the future.”


Cheryl Colbey is just one of many expats who have been profoundly affected by their experience working at the Chin Student Organisation. If you, too, would like to volunteer at the CSO, or simply make a donation, you can contact the organisation’s Administrator, Rhonda Kortum, on 019 259 9264 or email : [email protected].


Source: The Expat April 2013

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