As I sit here, fingers hovering above the keyboard, my thoughts freeze and scatter. How does one start to write about a new life, a new city, a new world – one that is not new at all but is constantly being shaped and reformed in its subtle magnitude. How does one describe a place? Through its landscape? With sprawling skyscrapers, it’s towering cranes, the seemingly haphazard construction and definition of level ground? Through its powerful weather? The way the heat beats down throughout the day only to burst into a sudden shower, dampening the air and fissuring it with wild cracks of thunder that leave your bones shaking and pulse racing? Or is it the people and history that truly define a place?
This place, my new home for the next 6 months, is in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As much as I want to describe my experience in Malaysia (so far) through its tastes – the wealth of culture and life in the food stalls on the side of the road or even erected in the middle of parking lots, the micro-interactions of nationality and language, of privilege and power revealed through the simple actions of ordering a meal – what has captured my attention recently is something that I noticed during my first week of work at MSRI Refugee Support Center: notions of reproduction and pregnancy.
As an intern at MSRI, I assist the Senior Programme Manager in what seems a variety of tasks ranging from running for files to writing and submitting funding proposals to Starbucks Malaysian Headquarters (they said no). While I felt thrown in head first, it really helped me get a grounding for the structure of MSRI and how it functions. One of my first introductions to the inner workings of this NGO was participating in a meeting that occurs once a week to assess refugee requests for MSRI’s assistance. These requests range from desires for one’s own “sewing machine” to appeals for support in paying hospital bills or rent. Families with the most need are given priority and MSRI provides assistance with the goals of encouraging resilience and self-reliance. The true aim for MSRI is for there to one day no longer be a need for this organization. Today though, it is still vital.
The assistance that MSRI can provide is determined by a ‘Vulnerability Criteria’ which focuses on families in greatest need. Vulnerability is judged on multiple factors including: whether there are family members with employment, the size of the household, and emergency medical conditions. What is noticeably absent from these criteria is pregnancy. A little probing into the topic quickly revealed that MSRI no longer supports pregnancy in refugee families. Rather, pregnancy and reproduction are quite controversial.
Although it was before my time, MSRI used to provide assistance for pregnant women in a program called Women2Women. However, the organization found that when you provide support for pregnancies in refugee families, people interpreted this as the organization providing support to families with pregnant women, and it was interpreted that if you are not getting the support you want, become pregnant.
This was true to an extent. MSRI is unable to assist all families and has no desire to create reliance on the organization to the extent of incapacitating refugee families in seeking their own self-determination. Despite the good intentions of MSRI, the support that was provided to pregnant women spurred a flurry of pregnancies as word spread. The problem for those families was that an increase in family size meant more mouths to feed and more lives to support in conditions that were already precarious. For MSRI, reproduction symbolizes more than just family, it increases poverty in families already vulnerable – something the organization works hard to circumvent.
In Malaysia, the situation has an extra layer of complications. As refugees are not legally recognized by the government they are considered illegal immigrants and are thus vulnerable to arrest and deportation. They have no access to education, employment, or healthcare. Due to an informal arrangement with UNHCR, public and private healthcare systems provide UNHCR-registered refugees with a 50% discount. If a refugee is still waiting for a UNHCR appointment, newly arrived, or rejected by the UNHCR, they must pay the foreigners’ rate. An expensive cost when you cannot legally work in the country.
One cannot tell a population to stop reproducing however. Refugee populations are provided with education on birth control–MSRI in fact works with organizations that provide IUDs and other forms of birth control. While promising, much of this work is has not had the impact that the supporting organizations had hoped as navigating language and cultural barriers is challenging.
Due to my surreal placement at MSRI, I have had the opportunity to hear many of the healthcare cases that MSRI has dealt with; cases where women have almost given birth outside hospitals that refuse them entry without a deposit; and situations where babies are born seizing or diabetic, requiring emergency medical care, and families have been unable to cover the costs. MSRI has stood fast and strong, providing support and assistance to these families in desperate need.
However, these conversations of reproduction loom large within these Malaysian tales of autonomy and stratified reproduction. It’s a conundrum that has echoed across time and continues to replay across the globe: this desire to prevent reproduction in populations and groups that for some reason are deemed ‘inappropriate’. It’s a narrative of poverty, citizenship, and power. And it raises questions in my mind: Is the discouragement of refugees from reproducing patriarchal? Do “we” really know what is best for refugees and their future? Should they respond to the authoritative knowledge imposed upon them? Is easy access to healthcare and hospitals a right, or a privilege that depends on citizenship? If so, who pays? And it is through this complex paradigm that has been afforded me that I slowly begin to frame my description of a society. A place. A people. Continually forming themselves and their identities through the day-to-day decisions of their lives. And it trickles all the way down to those food stalls and those micro-interactions of nationality and language, of privilege and power, that are revealed through the simple actions of ordering a meal. For ultimately, how we treat others, defines ‘us’ and ‘them’.
My time in Malaysia so far has been short. I am still very much a stranger here in KL with so much to learn and experience yet ahead. Each moment I spend here I find I am making mistakes, building anew from them, and learning more than I could ever have imagined. The world is opening from here at MSRI and I can only continue to explore it.