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Today is World Refugee Day

June 20, 2011

off the Cape Town Waterfront, Jan '09

Malaysia is home to more than 93,000 UNHCR-registered refugees, many of whom are Burmese ethnic minorities (mostly Rohingyas, Chins and Kachins). But it isn’t a hospitable home. Because Malaysia has neither signed the 1951 Convention on Refugees nor introduced protective legislation with similar goals, refugees are deprived of official status and legal employment, often live in appalling conditions and are subject to the whims of bribe-seeking authorities. Only half of the child refugees in Malaysia have access to education, usually provided by volunteers and NGOs.

See this website for suggestions on how to take action, and for stories of individual refugees.

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Another thing that made me furious: the government is refusing to extend the visas of Libyan students who don’t want to return home at the moment. Nastaghfirullah.

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I wouldn’t have known about World Refugee Day if not for a seminar I attended on Saturday morning, organized by Jump (Jaringan Utara Migrasi dan Pelarian, or the Northern Network for Migrants and Refugees), with support from Suaram and the UNHCR. See this article about migrant workers in Penang for a sample of Jump’s work.

One thing that struck me at the seminar was the sheer youth of the organizers: many were hardly older than me, if at all. I felt similarly last summer when I met two of the UKM 4. (Before I realised who they were, I committed the profoundly embarrassing mistake of asking one of them if he knew what was going on with the — how many of them ah? three izzit? — UKM students, because clearly I’d been following Malaysian news really carefully.)

And it’s something I often wonder about. If I’d stayed in Malaysia, what sort of activism would I have gotten involved in? How much could I have accomplished by now?

Apart from the fact that rhetorical questions are annoying and retrospective “what if”s fruitless, that previous paragraph comes dangerously close to discounting whatever mentoring and advocacy that I’ve gotten to do through journalismy and Christiany things on campus. Other people have done infinitely more, but I have no right to be ungrateful. Still, I do wonder. Not least because it isn’t just a historic question: if I had a bit more chutzpah, I could’ve made my way to Kuala Lumpur to immerse myself in local activism this summer, doing odd jobs to cover public transport and meals and the mamak/Starbucks dates that are fundamental to networking around there.

Evidently I’m more lembik than that, which is why I’m at home now, reading and fake-writing and resting and trying to figure things out. We shall see.

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In truth, I’m even more lembik than I’ve suggested, because this past weekend I was feeling tired enough to substitute my typical homework sabbath (from dinner on Saturday to dinner on Sunday) with a social-sciencey-reading  sabbath. So in my diminished expression of see-what-youth-can-accomplish, over the weekend I reread three of Patricia Wrede’s four Enchanted Forest chronicles. I probably would’ve reread the other one too, only we haven’t ever run into a secondhand copy.

It’s sort of sad: children’s literature is one of the only things that I can read with any respectable speed. Note that I say children’s literature, because a lot of stuff written for kids really doesn’t deserve that distinction, but the stuff that does can be gorgeous and witty and haunting. And we probably have enough of it to last me the whole summer, except that there are also fifty million other things I want to/should read. I do wish we had more theatre, because I’d be equally happy to spend the whole summer reading, say, Tom Stoppard, but choosers shouldn’t be whiners.

Incidentally, the Enchanted Forest chronicles recently came up in conversation, when my super cool art studio professor was talking about how difficult it can be to find children’s books with smart female protagonists who do important things without simpering. He thought Patricia Wrede’s stuff was a very good example. Incidentally, he also thought Aung San Suu Kyi — who just celebrated her 66th birthday, marking just the seventh time in the last 22 years that she enjoyed a birthday out of house arrest — was a very good example of someone who brought lyric and beauty into the “soul-sucking work of policy.” I agree with him on both counts.

And no, I’m not much of a visual artist, as much as I enjoyed that art class last fall. My eye isn’t terrible, but my manual dexterity is lacking and my sense of volume dismal — so I really enjoyed drawing faces and small body parts but found whole figures stressful. This failure to gauge proportions is also why I have trouble figuring out how much food I should cook or answering friends who ask if they’ve gained weight, and why I cheat and use third lines on my camera screen haha.

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Another humourously sad thing: this one bit in Ezra 10, after the Israelites have been summoned to gather in Jerusalem because some of them have been marrying foreign women. Putting aside the marrying foreign women thing — because I am (a) actively religious and (b) often a foreign women, I have an inappropriate amount to say about that — here’s the amusing part.

And on the twentieth day of the ninth month, all the people were sitting in the square before the house of God, greatly distressed by the occasion and because of the rain. Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women, adding to Israel’s guilt. …”

The whole assembly responded with a loud voice: “You are right! We must do as you say. But there are many people here and it is the rainy season; so we cannot stand outside.

It ends well, though (except for the foreign women). The assembly proposes a solid administrative framework for addressing the issue, and quickly gets out of the rain. Trust personal discomfort to yield unified efficiency.

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Also, since my last post I’ve gotten to eat guava, one of the few fruits I regularly miss when I’m  away, as well as asam laksa from this fabulous stall that’s been around for decades.

I’ve also gotten to have cook a meal for myself, which wasn’t exactly something I thought I’d be clamouring to do on vacation, but it looks like nine months of cooking three-quarters of all my meals (and then carrying them to dining halls in little microwaveable containers so I could still have one-on-one mealtime conversations) has left an imprint.

Unfortunately, the night I cooked my own dinner I spaced out on the dog’s and fed her two hours late. :(

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