Hilla Community Centre is appropriately named ‘hilla’, meaning ‘hope’ in the Afghan language, bringing that and so much more to many helpless refugees
Have you ever imagined the life of a refugee? First, you’ll need to try best to comprehend how bad a situation must have been for one to leave his home and country, to give up everything and uproot with no guarantee of a future. One must either be very courageous and daring or put into a corner with no way out but to charge forwards in faith. Then on arriving a foreign land, only to be labeled a ‘refugee’ and usually treated accordingly, without the warm welcome, most times kept in fenced-up camps, sometimes in the most appalling conditions, simply waiting without knowing for how long. Life is only full of choices for some.
While these are only perceptions and smidgens of my imagination, I turn to Jeanette Chan, one of the two people who were drawn together to establish Hilla Community Centre, in aid of Afghanistan, Myanmar, Pakistani and Iranian refugees. She relates how the centre took shape. “Enoch Kim and I attend the same church. He is from Korea and is married to a Malaysian Chinese. Since 2007, Enoch has been assisting an Afghan family living in the area. As time went on, he got to know many more Afghan families, many of whom shared their problems of all sorts with him. There was a time when Enoch told me about 14 Afghanians who had no choice but to live together in a 700 sq ft apartment. Being refugees from foreign lands, most of them could not communicate in the local dialect or even English, therefore many were unable to get jobs or even earn meager wages,” shares Jeanette. While landing a job was like hitting the jackpot, naturally there were always financial problems within most refugee families, leading to a host of other dilemmas. This usually resulted in both father and mother having to work to make ends meet, with children left on their own. And because refugee children are not allowed into the local education system, and can’t afford international school fees, these refugee children are simply left without any education.
Enoch found this Catch-22 scenario utterly disturbing. It came to a point where he just couldn’t bear doing nothing about it. “I couldn’t sleep one night after I saw the number of children who had no proper education and no schooling facilities available. Most of the families had financial burdens and many parents both had to work to sustain the family and provide basic necessities. I’ve seen children barely 12-years old, having to look after their younger siblings. Some have told me how much they hate their brothers and sisters – having to look after them. It is heart breaking to see children taking on so much responsibility, unable to enjoy their childhood,” Enoch declares.
He adds, “My wife Esther, Jeanette and I were only the hi and bye kind of people every Sunday. But when I was looking for a teacher to help start an education cum community centre for refugee children, somehow Jeanette and I – our eyes met, our ears heard the calling and our hearts just went out to the cause,” Enoch reveals. And this was how Hilla Community Centre was founded in 2007, beginning in a small room of a tuition centre where meetings were held, for three months before moving to a double-storey link corner lot in Taman Seri Merdeka, Ampang. Enoch and Jeanette both run the establishment, along with their spouses, with many neighbours and friends helping out.
The centre which began with just 15 children now have more than 35 families, with 77 children aged between five and 18. Along with their families, they’re all legal immigrants who have come into the country on their own. They’ve registered with the UNHCR programme requesting assistance as refugees to remain here legally until resettlement. The centre now offers two sessions – the morning and evening, teaching English, Mathematics, Accounts, Science, Moral, Art, and music like piano and guitar, and always looking for volunteers to offer their service. There’s also an annual Peace Camp implemented into the syllabus, run by a Korean foundation called The Frontiers Group. “This camp runs for 5 to 6 days. It’s a day camp that teaches the children what is peace, about love and war, how to recognize war and conflict, how to avoid these along with solutions. These are taught through a series of games, activities, art and drama sessions and is run by a facilitator from Korea,” Jeanette shares. Other than these, the children also get to enjoy the sporadic free haircuts, trips like to the zoo, complimentary Sunway Lagoon theme park access and the occasional festive celebrations the centre commemorates with hopes to further educate the children and their families about these other cultural festivities.
“In the beginning the centre started with single session classes, which grew to double sessions as enrolments grew in numbers. Nowadays, there are even adult classes to help the more matured refugees communicate in English so as to be able to interact more efficiently in society, get jobs and earn a living,” says Jeanette. Still, Enoch and Jeanette say that they’re no experts and simply do the best they can. “We’re always looking for volunteers to help teach the children and sourcing ways and means to give these kids an all-rounded education. We only hope for the best for them and that when they are resettled, they can integrate well into the education and social system of their new country.” With resettlement sometimes taking years, Enoch tells of a case where a Rohingya family had just been resettled after waiting for 22 years. I imagine what it must be like to have to wait, unknowingly, almost like having your hands tied behind, in pain having to watch your children grow up with no proper education available, even more if as a parent you can’t provide basic necessities.
What keeps the centre running and the pillars behind it motivated are little gestures and incidences – like the student of theirs who was resettled last year and wrote back to say he wants to return to help the centre and the other children. “We were very touched. This proved we were on the right direction,” says Jeanette.
Enoch then relates a true story where a couple had to lock their children in the house when their father had to take their mother to the hospital to deliver their baby. “It is very normal for working refugee parents to lock their children at home and go to work because they do not have anyone to help see to their children whilst they earn a living.” He continues, saying that there was some complications during the delivery and the mother and baby both didn’t make it. In the meantime, as the father was on his way back home, the authorities stopped him and found he didn’t have his proper documentation on him and unable to explain to them as he wasn’t fluent with the language, he was kept and beaten-up in a lockup. A few days after, the father was released only to return and find the bodies of his children confined at home. “These are just some of the problems the refugee parents face. They need people who can help them, point them out to the right direction and assist them in solving their difficulties and problems. Jeanette also relates of the announcement in 2008 when USA declared they were not accepting anymore Afghanistan refugees and neither was Malaysia willing to do so. “The Afghans were given the choice of going back to their country but many didn’t want to. We advised them not to leave illegally but many left. Next thing we heard was that the boat they left in, sank and many families perished,” informs Jeanette.
It’s been about four years since the establishment of the centre and many relationships have been formed. It’s more than just a school, a community centre or a place to gather refugee children who have nowhere else to go to. “At Hilla, we practice family culture. We help anyone who is human and a legal refugee,” say Enoch and Jeanette. And that they do, having given up their high-earning salaries simply to help other humans in need.
Based on the brainstorming session during the Listen, Think, Do Workshop held on 15 September 2012, it was identified that Hilla needs assistance in the following areas (among others):
- Regular and committed volunteer teachers (particularly to teach English)
- Funds to expand their premises and activities
- Website development and Social media marketing