|Hafizes (Quran memorisers) in the making ...|
|An uncertain future awaits this little one ..|
|Father-of-one Muhammad is an engineer by training and a social worker by choice. 'Mat' handles project development for Muslim Aid by day, runs an eatery with some friends by night, and attends lectures weekends towards his MBA.|
|Quran and other religious books in a sorry state, torn and tattered Quran buruk aplenty. Yet, small hands reach out to them everyday, reading and reciting, memorising the verses, guided by teachers who just refused to give up.|
|Makeshift desks, shelved to the wall during makan and tidur times..|
|Just screw some aluminium sheets together against the wall, rope in a basket or two, pile in all the odds and ends and walla, there's your storage rack.|
|Rest before lunch. By the way, this is also where the children sleep come night time. Some of them go home to their respective families after school, but to most, the madrasah is 'home'.|
|The 30-minute rest is made mandatory to ensure the kids are alert for their afternoon lessons.|
|Here they are, patiently waiting for food to be served.|
|Kusyuk menjamu selera...|
|A prayer of thanks ...|
|...even if the only lauk is potato curry..|
No matter what their status, children have fundamental rights to education. In Malaysia, there are 18,700 refugee children under the age of 18. Of this, 13,800 are of school-going age, but proper schooling is denied them solely because of their 'stateless' status. [More about refugee children in Malaysia here].
Here at Madrasah Hashimiah, there are 165 such children, age four to 16. Some 70 of these kids are girls. Of the total, 50 are orphans; 40 with relatives (who are fellow refugees) while 10 are yatim piatu (with neither parents nor kin) who depend entirely on the goodwill of its principal, 42 year-old Ustaz Hashim, and his family to survive.
I have lived in KL for 39 years, but shamefully, this was my first visit to this part of the city. I was told this slice of Selayang is known as the 'Burmese Quarters' for this is where most Myanmar Muslim refugees in Malaysia live.
[Note: Myanmar Muslims are not to be confused with the Rohingyas, a Burmese Muslim ethnic group originating from the Myanmar-Bangladesh border area; the Rohingyas can be found mostly in Klang and Penang]
Because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees, it has no domestic legal protection for asylum seekers. [Read here for more].
Like many other asylum seekers in Malaysia, Myanmar Muslims can't hold proper jobs. As such, no matter how educated they are, many end up as labourers at the Selayang wholesale market, thus their congregation in the area.
The kids were in the middle of their morning lessons when our Muslim Aid team of four arrived to check on the progress of the school, and to have a status meeting with Ustaz Hashim.
The madrasah has been in operation since 1994 and has survived the years through the generosity and kindness of well-wishers,both NGOs and the general public.
There are currently 10 teachers (local and fellow refugees) attached to to school. They are paid a pittance to teach (RM500 - RM800 is the norm) but many remain committed to the children.
Ustaz Hashim lamented the low pay but said he just couldn't afford to pay better salaries. "In fact we need more teachers especially for Bahasa Malaysia and tahfiz (Quran recital) but I am at my wits end trying to figure out how to meet their pay."
The children are taught Quran & Islamic Knowledge, English, Bahasa Malaysia, their mother tongue the Burmese language and mathematics. Mornings are reserved for religious lessons, afternoons for the rest of the syllabus.
The school is currently in dire need of Bahasa Malaysia textbooks (Standard 1 to Standard 4) and appeals to the public for donation. "It's so hard to teach with everything lacking," opined Ustaz Hashim.
The emphasis, however, is on learning the Quran. Many children from the madrasah become hafiz every year and a ceremony is held annually to acknowledge this achievement. This year the presentation ceremony will be held in June and as in years past, Muslim Aid will have a hand in organising the event.
Despite their straitened circumstances, the kids are holding up quite well. Personally, I have not seen a better-behaved, bright-eyed bunch in a long time. I was told by Muhammad, who has been working with the refugee community for many years, that refugee children in this country were generally courteous and well-disciplined.
Last year, in a national tilawah (Quran recital competition) for children's homes and orphanages throughout the country, a boy from this madrasah came out tops; quite an achievement for a school that lacks almost everything but the will to survive.
According to Ustaz Hashim, it costs RM10,000 a month just to feed the children twice daily. "As you can see, we are not lavish with food either; it's only one dish a day with rice. Occasionally we give them meat or chicken."
The day we were there, the kids had rice with gulai kentang. I struggled to hold back my tears, thinking just the night before I took the family out for a lavish Chinese dinner to celebrate a son's birthday.
A popular woman artiste is a regular donor here, providing hundreds of kilos of rice on the quiet every month while a Buddhist organisation pays for the madrasah's monthly utility bills (bless you, Tzu Chi).
Recently, a new problem surfaced, challenging the madrasah's existence. The owner of the premises had indicated that he wanted to sell the property, and had offered it to the madrasah as first choice, for RM800,000.
"We may have to look for an alternative place soon. Much as I want to buy this place, wakaf it and turn it into a permanent school, I don't see how can I ever find the money," he said.
Ustaz Hashim said it made perfect sense to buy the shoplot for many reasons. Currently they are paying RM1,400 rent for the two floors but the school population is expanding rapidly and space is getting really cramped. "We are in dire need of another floor, but we can't afford the rent."
A fair bit of renovations have also been done to accommodate the children's needs (wudhu area etc). The key reason, however, is logistics. The madrasah is smack in the middle of Burmese Quarters where the Myanmar Muslim refugees live. Moving it outside the established boundaries would mean creating a host of new headaches - transportation for the children, for example.
In the meantime, it's business as usual at "Madrasah Anak-anak Yatim dan Tahfiz Quran Hashimiah - School of Orphans." The kids still need to be fed, clothed, tutored and taught, lack of money notwithstanding....
Ustaz Hafiz Hashim bin Qassim (019-2621671)
111-3, Kompleks Pasar Borong, Jalan 2/3A
Km 12, Jalan Ipoh, Selayang
68100 Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur
Monetary donations can also be made through Yayasan Kemanusiaan Muslim Aid Malaysia. Please call 03-22881996 (MUhammad/Puteri) for details.