Teaching Refugees.

Posted on January 28, 2012 by


by Kareem Fareed

Teaching was something I always thought I could do. I was good with kids and thought that I was pretty good at explaining complex information in a way that would make it easily understood.

However, I knew that simply thinking you were able to teach was completely different from actually teaching. My teachers were always telling me that it takes much more than simply a skill for teaching to become a good teacher; being able to handle a whole classroom, being fun yet stern. Everyone agreed that experience is what makes a teacher.

Hence, one of things I definitely wanted to include in my gap year was to get some teaching experience.


My mother has always been heavily involved in a volunteer project which involves teaching Burmese Refugees. Located above one of the shop-lots along Jalan Loke Yew, the school was a room the size of a tiny apartment block housing over 30 children. The conditions of the classroom itself was unsatisfactory to say the least; smelly, dirty and humid. It came as no surprise though: the school committee had limited funds to afford any help for cleaning and lacked the manpower to clean it up properly themselves. Most of the money was spent on food for the children. Hence, any form of volunteer work is always welcome to the institution, greeted by a

Once I started teaching, I finally understood what my teachers meant by “…it’s not as simple as just being able to teach.” You have to understand that these children know almost no English, and having to explain the word ‘colour’ or ‘couch potato’ is not the simplest of tasks. Also, learning how to keep the student’s attention is another obstacle; being fun yet firm, knowing when to accept innocent mistakes or identify pure laziness. It does take a while to get used to and can be very frustrating, but once you get the hang of it, it can be extremely rewarding. You are introduced to the individual characters in your classroom, find out certain quirks and interests that they have and it is almost impossible not to form a certain bond with your class. In addition, you will find that many of their dreams and aspirations are strikingly similar to any other children: wanting to become astronauts, doctors or firemen.

I remember one of my students, Jacob, wanting to become a doctor to help treat his mother who had an acute blood disease. Of course, if I had a son who wanted to become a doctor, I would immediately start saving up for his education; providing him a good primary and secondary education, and getting him to a top class medical school.

But Jacob’s chances of obtaining his dream are very slim. His mother is a cook at one of the cheap restaurants in town; he does not know what his father does. Jacob has 4 other siblings and lives somewhere in the many shadowy low cost apartment units present in Kuala Lumpur. His family barely has enough money to provide them with food let alone an education; top class medical school? Jacob probably does not even know they exist.

That simple fact is what stood out to me most during my 3 months teaching at the Zotung Refugee School; the fact that these children who have the most honest and meaningful ambitions will almost never be given the opportunity to do so. Hence, in addition to the teaching experience, I discovered something even more valuable: purpose. I found the true meaning of what it means to be a teacher; to help, inspire and encourage others improve their lives through education. It is something that probably would not have realized immediately had I just taught at any regular classroom. The act of voluntary teaching itself, the honest intention, is what makes it, I feel, a more wholesome experience.


SIB Kuala Lumpur

SIB Kuala Lumpuris headed by Michael Kwan and is an organization dedicated to helping educate children of refugees. It coordinates about 10 Refugee Schools scattered across the bustling city of KL.

I have been closely affiliated with the Zotung Refugee School (Zotung is the name of a particular Burmese tribe, and the schools are usually divided accordingly to prevent conflict between the different tribes). However, whichever school you are assigned to, the requirements are all the same: a passion for teaching.

So if you are looking to have a similar experience, to experience teaching for what it is worth, how can you get involved?

1) Contact SIB Kuala Lumpur

Katherine is Michael’s personal secretary. You can contact her via email at: katherine@sibkm.org.my

2) Get assigned to a refugee school

Once assigned, Katherine will give you the contacts of your specific coordinator. Set a meeting with the specific coordinator to find out the teaching system of the school. Each school runs according to a unique teaching system created by the head coordinator. He/She will give you information regarding location and transport as well.

3) Collect teaching material

Most coordinators buy teaching material with their own money or donations; some bring their own teaching materials from home. Material varies according to the different teaching systems formed by the head coordinator.

4) Start teaching

Most institutions allow teachers the freedom to teach whichever way they want to. Be creative; come up with games, quizzes or puzzles to engage the students and make the learning experience fun for them.

Once in a while, certain refugee schools organize trips to the zoo, forest reserves and so on. When they do, they will try to contact you to help escort the children to these places. I found it was a great opportunity to bond with my students; play around with them and get to know them better. For example, I was involved in a trip to Janda Baik; it was heart warming to see the children play in the field, finally being able to run around in an open environment; a complete contrast from the cramped conditions of most of the schools. Definitely one of my better experiences.

Tip: Be patient. Remember, most of these schools aren’t an ideal teaching environment and quite a few of the kids can be loud and stubborn. However, the impact you will make in their lives is definitely worth these minor inconveniences.