One of the programs that MSRI runs under the arm of the volunteer coordinators are workshops for the refugees and asylum-seekers registered with MSRI. These workshops typically fall under two themes, either health awareness or vocational training. They range from 1 to 3 sessions, sometimes conducted at specific ethnic refugee community centres, and sometimes at the MSRI community centre. Just before my arrival they had finished a nutrition, and a general health and first aid workshop. The specific purposes of the workshops vary with each topic, but they are generally meant to offer new or build on existing knowledge on topics that can benefit the individual participant and empower them to be instructors in their community.
For example, in my second month as an intern at MSRI I was able to attend 3 weeks of health awareness sessions in four refugee community centres: Afghan, Somali, Yemeni, and MSRI. Facilitated by MSRI and delivered by the Federation of Reproductive Health Association Malaysia (FRHAM), these sessions covered topics related to sexual and reproductive health, including male and female body parts, menstruation and puberty, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and sexual assault. The aim of these sessions was to raise awareness about sexual and reproductive health while empowering women through health education. Many participants did not receive comprehensive sexual health training in their home countries, nor is it commonly discussed in the Malaysian context. While refugees and asylum-seekers are in Malaysia there are few opportunities to receive sexual and reproductive health education. With this workshop, we hoped participants would receive the necessary knowledge to discuss such topics with their children, family, and friends. This workshop was my first opportunity to truly engage with the communities by sharing a space, speaking with them, and learning together.
While some of MSRI’s workshops are restricted to its clients, this particular workshop was open to any refugee or asylum-seeker. In all communities there was a mix of participants who did and didn’t have an MSRI number, quite a few had UNHCR cards, and a large number had UNHCR Appointment cards, which some hold for years. As I became recognized as a representative of MSRI at the workshop, people began asking regularly about how they could register with MSRI. I would have to explain that we were at capacity and not taking anymore clients at the moment. In fact, MSRI paused registration in 2016 and since then has only been able to assist non-clients in emergency cases. In these situations, the joy I felt from engaging with the community face-to-face was pinched by the reminder of how little I could offer while I was receiving so much in return.
Since the completion of the Sexual and Reproductive Health workshop in July, I have been able to attend Business, Computer, and Mosaic workshops. On the final day of each workshop I distribute an evaluation form to get feedback about what was learned and suggestions for future workshops. I’ve now read through dozens of these forms and the most common feedback is 1) provide more types of workshops, and 2) provide more consistent workshops. The computer workshop I helped facilitate was a one-day, 8 hour session. Nearly everyone I spoke with was happy with the content taught, but did not enjoy the format. They suggested a less intensive, multi-day computer course with more time to practice. This is a basic tenant of teaching, increasing knowledge over time rather than trying to learn it all at once.
The importance of consistency has come up over and over, a need voiced by both clients and staff. In this line of work, the mission is to provide sustainable programs that encourage resilience and empowerment. To support consistently, as needed, rather than repeatedly providing one-off support, or the minimum needed to stay a float. Consistent aid can go wrong too, when it does not encourage self-reliance and resilience. But with an organization like MSRI, I have seen how important consistency benefits our clients, such as regularly scheduled mental health services, yoga classes, soccer practices, and vocational training workshops. With the workshops, the benefit of having 3 sessions over 3 weeks for the Sexual and Reproductive Health workshop was assured in the participants feedback. Comparatively, the majority of the feedback from the computer workshop criticized the learning drawback from a one-day session.
There are many structural forces that inhibit an organization like MSRI from providing regular services. Financial limits and the availability of volunteers and trainers are major factors in determining the regularity of the workshops. Nevertheless, striving for consistency in these programs is important. My involvement with the workshops has shown me how salient it is to listen to the community voices. When we listen and act on their suggestions, these workshops can be a valuable space for participants to grow personally and professionally, and to build individual knowledge as well as strengthen the community.