Through their eyes

A pho­tog­ra­phy ex­hi­bi­tion by refugee and un­doc­u­mented chil­dren dis­plays the harsh re­al­i­ties of their lives.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - R. AGE - By SA­MAN­THA CHOW allther­age@ thes­tar. com. my

THE crowd gath­ered around a pho­to­graph of a dis­abled man beg­ging in the middle of a busy walk­way in Chow Kit. The pho­tog­ra­pher, 17- year- old Nur Aisyah Habibul­lah, ex­plained that it was her favourite pic­ture as the scene re­minded her of her home in Myan­mar.

You could hear the re­silience in her voice as she re­counted the mem­ory of leav­ing her home coun­try three years ago with her par­ents and four sib­lings.

“My father took us out of the coun­try be­cause it was get­ting un­safe,” she said. “I can’t re­mem­ber ev­ery­thing now, but this photo de­scribes what it’s like back home.”

Nur Aisyah is one of over 30,000 refugee and asy­lum- seek­ing chil­dren reg­is­tered with United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees ( UN­HCR) re­sid­ing in Malaysia. As an asy­lum seeker, she is not al­lowed to at­tend pub­lic school.

She at­tends a home- school­ing pro­gramme or­gan­ised by Yayasan Chow Kit ( YCK) called KL Krash Pad, which gives vo­ca­tional and ed­u­ca­tional train­ing to chil­dren aged 13 to 18.

As part of their train­ing, fif­teen chil­dren, in­clud­ing Nur Aisyah, were handed a cam­era and an as­sign­ment – to cap­ture pho­tos of their daily lives.

The pho­tos are cur­rently ex­hib­ited in the Art Gallery, lo­cated in the Chan­cellery Build­ing of Univer­siti Malaya.

The ex­hi­bi­tion, ti­tled Kuala Lumpur Kita Je!, is or­gan­ised by YCK and UM Cares, and will run un­til March 26.

Ka­mal Sol­haimi Fadzil, a vol­un­teer at KL Krash Pad, was the man who ini­ti­ated the pro­ject. He had been giv­ing ba­sic pho­tog­ra­phy lessons to the chil­dren and re­alised they had a nat­u­ral in­stinct for cap­tur­ing im­ages.

“Pho­tog­ra­phy is a way of em­pow­er­ing some­one and al­low­ing them to think deeper,” said Ka­mal, who is also a lec­turer at UM.

“Nur Aisyah’s photo of the beg­gar which was taken to re­flect her home­town is not just any nice pho­to­graph; it shows a deeper side to her life that oth­ers don’t see.”

At first glance, each photo on dis­play look like reg­u­lar snap­shots found in any­one’s cam­era: there’s a fam­ily at a pic­nic, a cou­ple at their wed­ding, chil­dren play­ing by the river, and a slightly blurred out dark al­ley.

But look­ing closer, each photo has a deeper mean­ing, ex­plained in the cap­tions writ­ten by the kids.

The pho­tog­ra­pher of the dark al­ley is Ji­naidin, 17, who ex­plained that the al­ley is a pop­u­lar haunt for pros­ti­tutes and drug ad­dicts, but he has to walk through it daily on the way to school.

The pro­ject is meant as a tool of self- ex­pres­sion, said Ka­mal, and it is re­flected in their pho­tos.

“Th­ese kids have in­quis­i­tive minds and a good eye. We don’t think much of kids, but I learnt that if you place your trust in them, you’ll see them achieve so much more,” he said.

Dressed in their school uni­forms, the kids look like any other school chil­dren. Only dif­fer­ence is, their uni­forms don’t have badges.

They were gath­ered in a tight group at the ex­hi­bi­tion, laugh­ing and jok­ing with each other like all kids do.

But in the eyes of the state, th­ese chil­dren do not ex­ist. As refugees and un­doc­u­mented chil­dren, they are of­ten de­nied the most ba­sic rights, such as education.

Any­one below the age of 18 is con­sid­ered a child and they should have the same rights as any other child would have, said Dr Har­tini Zain­udin, founder of YCK.

“But the lack of proper doc­u­men­ta­tion ( like birth cer­tifi­cates) deny them th­ese rights, and th­ese kids aren’t al­lowed to go to school,” she said.

They can’t open a bank ac­count or travel, as they risk de­ten­tion if they’re caught by au­thor­i­ties.

While or­gan­i­sa­tions like YCK as­sist by or­gan­is­ing home- school­ing pro­grams for chil­dren like Nur Aisyah, they are re­leased as soon as they turn 18.

“It’s a race against time to en­sure that they’re built and given as many op­por­tu­ni­ties and skills as pos­si­ble, so they can thrive and do some­thing with their lives,” said Dr Har­tini.

“We need to pro­vide, nur­ture and sup­port the dif­fer­ent av­enues in which they can im­prove their skills, and pho­tog­ra­phy is one of them. This is an­other plat­form where the chil­dren can have a voice, and have a safe space to ex­press them­selves.”

She said the coun­try’s poli­cies are too rigid when it comes to un­doc­u­mented chil­dren. “We’re one of the worst coun­tries in terms of how we treat them,” said Dr Har­tini. “We need to en­sure, at the very least, they have ba­sic education rights.”

And xeno­pho­bia isn’t help­ing. “Malaysians tend to look down at for­eign­ers, un­less they are pro­fes­sion­als. It is sim­ply a lack of com­pas­sion,” said Dr Har­tini.

She en­cour­aged Malaysians to take the time and ef­fort to find out more about refugees and asy­lum- seek­ers.

“Vol­un­teer, and try to un­der­stand what’s go­ing on,” she said. “That’s all you need to do to help.”

To find out more about Yayasan Chow Kit and how you can vol­un­teer, go to yck. org. my.

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