Fugee School: A place of hope for refugee children in Malaysia

Fugee School is on a mission to see that no child gets left behind, Deborah (centre) says.
Fugee School is on a mission to see that no child gets left behind, Deborah (centre) says.

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 15 — What was the "spark" that made you decide to champion the lives of refugee children, leaving your modelling career behind?

I was hosting an in-house documentary for UNHCR in 2008 and this is when I had the opportunity to meet a Somalian refugee family living in KL. When I first met them, I didn’t just see a family, I saw the effects of having no education, no hope, and no support. I left their home that day and told myself: “I cannot just walk away from them."

In Malaysia, the main issue for refugees is the inability of refugee adults to work legally and the inability of their children to formally attend schools. These parents struggle as they can’t adequately provide for their families and this causes them to fall into depression, making them apathetic.

From missing out on years of learning and a proper childhood, these children eventually become victims of mental trauma and hopelessness.

Tell us a little about how you started Fugee School?

It all started when my university friend, Shikeen, and I were giving tuition. This was how Fugee School started in 2009.

Fugee School is on a mission to see that no child gets left behind. The school has witnessed the transformation of students because they have access to knowledge and are empowered with life-skills that build their self-worth and confidence.

Could you share with us the challenges you faced during the initial establishment of the school?

On top of the usual teething pains such as the processes and operations of running a school, the key challenge or hurdle back then was my career. Being a full-time model, TV host and emcee means round-the-clock travelling and jam-packed schedules. Most days, I do not even have time for myself.

However, I am blessed for being able to commit to Fugee School and all my other humanitarian efforts albeit working full-time.

What is your most memorable moment while you ventured into this social cause?

That is a tough one. I have to admit that every moment in Fugee School is a memorable one for me. Witnessing 250 children who have walked through Fugee’s doors, giving them a place to learn and grow, a place to make friends, and to feel loved and cherished is one of the reasons why every moment in Fugee School is memorable to me.

I do hope and pray that whatever we have done is able to strengthen these children and give them hope and light and good memories, and more importantly take their rightful places in society.

Since its establishment, could you share with us the success stories of Fugee School over the past years?

Hmm… there is a story that I am really proud of which is about one of our students at Fugee School. His name is Ahmed. When I first met him, he could not speak or write well and kept completely to himself. But would you believe it, fast forward seven years later, he recently moved to Turkey to further his studies. More impressively he has given passionate talks at TED about his life and started an awareness campaign to help street children in Somalia.

Fugee School has educated over 250 students and are currently nurturing 130 students from ages four to 22.
Fugee School has educated over 250 students and are currently nurturing 130 students from ages four to 22.

I am really amazed by him. He achieved his success because he possessed compassion, passion and resilience in him to help others while making a good life for himself.

To date, how many refugee kids have been accepted into the school and how have their lives been transformed?

As of now, Fugee School has educated over 250 students and we are currently nurturing 130 students from ages four to 22. We want to stay true to our mission – to see that no child gets left behind.

Up till today, it really amazes me to see how much the students have transformed since they entered the school. I believe that they are able to confidently take their place in this world because of the access to knowledge, the learning of life skills that shape their self-worth and the exposure to tech and global citizenry courses.

With hope, these students will have the courage to dream bigger dreams and to work towards their journey of success. This would ultimately shift the mind sets of the students from being victims of their circumstances to victors of their own lives.

What would your aspirations be for the Fugee School in the future and how do you see this school play its part in being an agent of change for refugees not only in Malaysia, but on the international scene as well?

I personally believe all children have potential, but not all children have the fair or same amount of opportunities and nurturing. Thus for any children to reach their fullest capability, we have to provide them the platform, opportunity and guidance. This is exactly what Fugee School is doing. We want to see our students have dreams, go far in life and achieve their goals.

Zooming out to a bigger picture, it is my desire to see a generation of children who give because they know that it is the right thing to do and to give impartially regardless of our differences. I want to change the way people give!

I am sure we can all agree to a certain extent, that we live in a world based on an “us versus them” sort of ideology. It is sad for us to be constantly categorised and divided based on nationality, race, religion and gender even when it comes to giving! I am sure you have heard of comments such as: “We should give to our own kind first, then others.” This is an unkind way to think and an unkind way to give.

Your bold decision to champion this initiative has given hope to many Malaysians who desire to pursue their passion, just like you. Do you have any advice you would like to share with them to encourage their journey?

With passion comes dedication and commitment. This I can truly vouch for. In life, I have started many things that did not work out because I didn’t want it enough and have left room for doubt. But when you do something that really touches your heart and you truly believe in it, trust me the entire outcome will be different.

Started in 2009, Fugee School aims to empower its students with life-skills that build their self-worth and confidence.
Started in 2009, Fugee School aims to empower its students with life-skills that build their self-worth and confidence.

In whatever that you do, go to the ground and meet the people, listen to their stories. As a leader, you always have to work with the end goal in mind and more importantly achieve these goals with integrity and positivity in mind.

In life, who inspires you and why?

Simply put… good people inspire me. I admire anyone who has done good in their life. Let it be their career, their family life or even their personal life. To me, it is important to see the good in others. Anyone and everyone we meet in our journey of life will always have something which we can learn and be inspired from. To be able to see the good in others and use it to improve ourselves, that is what inspires me.

What is your life motto?

My life motto… alright, I’m not sure if you have heard of it but there is an Irish ring called the Claddagh ring. The ring has a heart held by two hands with a crown on top. The design represents four things which I live by – love, friendship, integrity and loyalty. It is these four elements which motivate me to persevere through the persistent challenges of life.

Note: This article is in conjunction with #MyUberPitch, an initiative by Uber Malaysia and INTI International University & Colleges. #MyUberPitch is the first platform of its kind where over 20 business leaders and leading entrepreneurs including Deborah Priya Henry, went Uber-ing around on December 4 to listen to business pitches from aspiring entrepreneurs in the Klang Valley.