By: Jason Spierings, CandleLighters Volunteer

It was about this time last year that my former manager contacted me about HOST International’s CandleLighters position. I had just finished my Master of Humanitarian Assistance and was keen to further develop my experience internationally. I jumped at the chance as it’s been a dream of mine to work in a variety of humanitarian and development contexts around the world. What better place to continue my professional journey than in Malaysia?

HOST’s CandleLighters program is an internal initiative that supports our staff to be sent to volunteer in countries where refugees are on their journey from crisis to settlement. The goal is to empower these communities by helping to identify and expand community assets that support self-sufficiency. I had worked for a few years in the refugee context as a case manager/team leader for HOST in Nauru but left to start my master’s degree through Deakin University. Since obtaining a Bachelor of Social Work I had worked in a variety of programs with newly arrived refugees, unaccompanied minors, and asylum seekers. Working in Nauru inspired me to continue to expand my work experience internationally, which ultimately led me to Kuala Lumpur.

Working with refugees in Australia and Nauru, I had heard many stories about their time living in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. This was fascinating to me and from this had developed a desire to work with refugees in these countries. Being neighbouring countries to Australia, I also wanted to be involved in work within our region and that was somewhat close to home.

First impressions of Kuala Lumpur

Wesak Day in Kuala Lumpur
Credit: Jason Spierings

I arrived in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur in March and quickly settled into my new home. My biggest surprise was how diverse and cosmopolitan the city was! With Malaysians themselves being culturally diverse, comprising Malay, Indian, Chinese and Indigenous people, there were also many foreigners living, studying, and working in KL. While I expected to see the usual suspects from Europe, the US, and of course Australia, there were also many young people from different places in the Middle East and Africa completing their university studies, and many people from different countries in Asia working across different sectors. This made for an exciting multicultural and multi-faith environment.

Working side-by-side with displaced people

My CandleLighters placement was with Payong, a Malaysian NGO that supports refugees through different education, protection, and livelihoods projects. For the first half of my placement I was based at their flagship program, the Fugee School, which is an informal school for refugee children and youth. Situated in Gombak in the far north of the city, this suburb was home to most of the Somali and Yemeni refugees in KL so most students were from these countries. According to UNHCR, approximately 43,410 of displaced people in Malaysia are children below the age of 18*.

Apartment buildings in GombakApartment buildings in Gombak
Apartment buildings in Gombak

Despite hearing so much about the country through my studies and on the news, I had never met anyone from Yemen before. Even though I had previously worked with many Somalis, they had mostly lived in Somalia and Kenya. Here in KL, I learned that most of the Somalis in Gombak had spent most of their lives in different Arab countries such as Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Many of the students were not born in Somalia and had never even been there and generally their Arabic and English were better than their Somali. It was an eye-opener and such valuable experience, as I would be working closely with two refugee groups that I had never worked with before.

I had a desk at Ms Bushra, the school principal’s office, and learned a lot about the students and families, the school and the teachers, and life as a refugee in Yemen and Malaysia. One of the first things that struck me was this second displacement. Not only had families been forced to leave their homeland, Somalia, but also their makeshift home in Yemen and were unable to return even if they wanted to.

Collaborating with UNHCR and supporting Project Stand-Up

After becoming acquainted with my new work environment, I began the tasks outlined for me and quickly picked up new ones. I met with the education unit of UNHCR and we started planning out visits to the learning centres they knew were delivering some form of secondary education to refugees.

My initial work with UNHCR was with their Education Unit and working with one of their officers recently assigned to Secondary Education. Our joint task was to undertake a comprehensive mapping exercise to better understand which learning centres were delivering secondary education, what was being delivered, and what were their challenges, successes and aspirations for refugee secondary education. This would help guide the education unit in their work over the coming years. The unit was a group of four Malaysians passionate about education for refugees. They had a big task supporting roughly 135 learning centres throughout the country with very limited resources, yet they worked tirelessly and compassionately with the communities.

Next, I met with the Project Stand-Up team. Project Stand Up (PSU) is an initiative of students from refugee backgrounds in Malaysia who are seeking to solve gender equality problems, especially on breaking barriers to education for girls and young women. I started reviewing the child protection policies and researching education in humanitarian settings and the use of technology. This included an overall policy for being a child-safe organisation, procedures for responding to incidents, tools to undertake risk assessments, media and communication guidelines, and training.

Transformative Leadership in Action

Within a month or so I was in a good groove and had the opportunity to join Same Skies’ Transformative Leadership in Action program, where I worked within a group of like-minded individuals to develop a new service for refugees in KL. Together, we started the Refugee Network Centre through a successful online crowdfunding campaign and raised over $5,000 AUD. The centre will open soon and will be available to refugees from all communities. Not only will it be a platform for them provide skills and train others, but it’s a way for refugees to connect and share their existing skills and knowledge and network with local Malaysian entrepreneurs.

It was great to be part of a program that I witness grow from nothing to a thorough and well-executed community-led humanitarian project. With this new knowledge and skills, I felt well-placed and confident when asked by my local supervisor to extend my placement to support the development of livelihood and community protection-based projects.

Payong, being a partner of UNCHR Malaysia, had been supporting refugee community groups throughout the year on different livelihood projects. They had been asked to extend to Penang, as well as take on another project to support a community domestic violence shelter in KL. Some of my highlights of my placement came during this period, travelling to Penang to meet and work with members of the Rohingya community to design protection projects for implementation in 2019.

Rohingya Society in MalaysiaRohingya Society in Malaysia
Rohingya Society in Malaysia (RSM)

The community domestic violence shelter is a transitional home for women run by the Rohingya Society in Malaysia (RSM). Servicing predominantly Rohingya women, this shelter is run by the refugee community for women that have experience sexual and gender-based violence. My role was to support the organisation to explore ways of making the transitional home financially sustainable in the future and less reliant on UNHCR funding. We supported RSM to develop a business strategy for a catering business, where any profits made would go towards the running costs of the transitional home. RSM is now ready to implement this business strategy and will likely start the business in early 2019.

The past nine months as a HOST International CandleLighters volunteer was packed with projects and initiatives that fortunately, aligned precisely with my own professional objectives and values. The experience that I’ve gained has been invaluable and the relationships cultivated have been priceless. It has also given me clarity with where and how I want to further develop my career. In the short-term I’m interested in the Southeast Asia region and hope to work within Myanmar as this country is a major source of displacement within the region. Longer term, I’m interested in other complex and multi-faceted crises. The Sahel Region in Africa is an area of interest to me, as you see the cumulative impact of climate change, poverty, and political instability that has spurred sporadic conflict and displacement. I would also like to explore how I could balance work in the field with work back home in Australia and am thinking about ways that I could enter academia and research.

For more information on CandleLighters, visit HOST International’s website. For the latest updates on CandleLighters, visit HOST International’s blog.