Stories from the field

Day 2016-06-01

Danae Zachari – Blog 1: Privilege and What Laws Mean to Different Individuals

My socio-economic privilege and the fact that I hold a Canadian passport give me the freedom of mobility that the majority of the world’s population may not have. Many are using their life earnings to take on this journey in hope for a better future, while I have the freedom and privilege to be planning trips for personal pleasure. When I arrived in Kuala Lumpur, the border control officer asked how long I intended to stay and was not even concerned about the purpose of my trip, as it was likely assumed that I was a tourist. The process was quick and easy, but I am aware this is not the case for everyone. If I was holding a different passport, it is likely the officer could assume that I intended to stay  longer than I was permitted, and would thus demand more information.

A few days after arriving, I once again became aware of my own privilege. Claire, my fellow intern, and I were returning home in a taxi and the police signalled the car to pull over at a road security checkpoint. They asked to see our passports, but we didn’t have them with us. Instead, we had taken a photocopy of the ID page, which we showed to the officers.

“Not good enough. Where are your passports?” asked the officer.

“We left them in a safe place where we are staying, but we do have a photocopy and other identification on us,” we replied.

“Not my problem. You have five minutes to get someone to bring them”, said the police officer.

We convinced them to let one of us go home and return with the passports, while the other stayed at the checkpoint. This experience was yet another reminder of my social advantage. A checkpoint for an asylum seeker who is considered “illegal” could mean detention or deportation. The police often stop refugees to check theirdocumentation, which can result in assault and robbery. When these people’s rights are violated and it is difficult to impossible for them to access the legal system to report such incidents; a right I take for granted. 

The Malaysian visa policy has no negative impact on me as I can easily exit and re-enter the country.  For others, however, this is not the case. After their three-month entry visa expires, even if these people have managed to retain their passports, which are often held or confiscated by smugglers, they are considered “illegal” under the law. One could argue that being able to receive a visa upon arrival is a positive thing because it gives people the opportunity to go to Malaysia on a plane and not to have to travel by boat or on foot (which in fact still happens, as there are many using such means to reach Malaysia). I have come to understand that unfortunately, the truth is that refugees traveling by plane still rely on illicit networks to issue passports and arrange travel. From Afghanistan, for example, an individual must be twenty-one years old to exit the country. This means that in order to leave the country many minors must purchase fake passports that state they are over twenty-one.

The reality is that many people are drowning in the sea trying to reach a safe destination; many are abducted between borders, trafficked, and forced into unlawful contracts, which demand repayment to their smugglers, who are working under the guise of helping them, while in fact they are exploiting them. The picture that circulated on social media of the young child that died in the Aegean Sea made me think, like many others; what if the Turkish and Greek government, for example, were to run a commercial ferry line to allow individuals and families to safely travel? I do understand that this has happened to some degree, however, it does not give justice to the thousands who have and continue to lose their lives and all those who experience yet another trauma, other than the distress of having to abandon their homes and at the moment, for many, warzones. This leads me to question the banal reality of conflict and war. 

The focus of the media in the past couple of years has been on the refugee crisis that Europe is facing with thousands of people trying to enter that space, as well as, on the fear that there may be terrorists among the refugees. What about the terror that is forcing people to leave everything behind and take on an unsafe, unknown and unpredictable journey? Of course many are discussing this, educating people like myself, and challenging the underlying structures such as capitalism and patriarchy, which produce these systemic inequalities, in order to bring social change. I am not trying to say that the relocation of people is not a required apparatus and a significant part of the solution. If I believed this, I would not be here interning with an organization that is dedicated to supporting refugees in their new environment and in their process of being granted refugee status and hopefully, resettled. Instead, I am briefly stating that it is important to address the roots of the problem, to discuss issues such as the role of colonialism, of external intervention, of climate change, of the capitalist ideology and of political interests that are destroying people’s livelihoods.

Laws affect different individuals in a variety of ways, and I realize how ignorant I can sometimes be of what a policy or legal process means for somebody else. Although I can make assumptions about the prevalence of police violence, for example, I can never truly understand the complexity of the issues the way someone who has to live the experience every day can. I have the opportunity to discuss such issues on platforms like this one, while those living under these oppressive systems most often do not have the chance to make their voices heard. This leaves me with the responsibility to be mindful of myposition and how I express what I am learning, and furthermore, how laws impact me in comparison to others.

Claire Horwood – Blog 2: Lost in Translation: An Introduction to the Malaysian Social Research Institute

It is late Friday afternoon when I climb the stairs in the medical services and community support building for the Sahabat Support Centre (SSC).The building itself is unmarked, with a run of the mill business underneath which diverts attention away from what happens on the 2nd and 3rd floors. My feet are heavy in the narrow stairwell, as beads of sweat congregate at my temples, along my hairline, streaking salt into my eyes. Sunlight dapples in, through grimy windows, and voices carry into the echo of the vast space.

I am nervous. 

“I hope you don’t mind, but we’re going to throw you right into the deep end”, says Gloria, the operating manager of the SSC.

She is conducting an “open day”, where refugees book appointments to discuss medical claims, appeal for support (monetary and in kind) and pursue claims with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

When we enter the small and stuffy room on the top floor, the first candidate, an old man, his face heavily etched with dark creases, is hunched over an unsturdy looking table, surrounded by metal fold out chairs. Gloria motions for Danae and I to sit down, and a young Afghan man joins us, quite unexpectedly.

“Hello. My name is Gloria,” says Gloria, “do you mind if my interns sit in with us today?”

The young Afghan man begins to speak to the elderly man in what I assume to be Farsi. I understand, then, that he is an interpreter. And that interpreters are the lifeblood of this organization.

An excerpt from my personal blog – Caught in the Deluge – “Open House Friday at the Sahabat”

As the passage above suggests, one of the things that has become blaringly apparent to me in the few short weeks that I have spent at the Malaysian Social Research Institute (MSRI) is the importance of language when it comes to meaningful service provision for urban refugees. While I intend to introduce a narrative, much like the excerpt from my personal blog, to explore the themes of language, belonging and identity in my future blog posts, this first post will be a little bit more technical, because I feel it is important to outline the basic program infrastructure and language demographic at the centre.

Currently, at MSRI, there are a number of programs being offered to minority refugees living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. These are broken down by major activity below.

The number of people (and populations) accessing these services fluctuates, but the average demographic is outlined below, in a very professional looking graph.


When it comes to language, the diversity of the people coming through the doors at MSRI can make things a little bit sticky! Oftentimes, individuals hailing from the countries listed above not only speak different languages, but different dialects of the same language (for example, many refugees from Afghanistan speak Dari, while those from Iran speak Farsi, which are both variations of the same language).

And then you add in the written components.

Symbols for consonants. Graphemes that represent phonemes (or basic units of sound). Back vowels. Linear alphabets. And the list goes on and on.

Add all of this to the fact that language is also tied to largely non-concrete concepts like identity and belonging. We use language to connect to one another – to express our inner thoughts and emotions, to make sense of complex and abstract thought, to fulfill our wants and needs, to establish rules and to maintain our culture.

So what happens, when all of a sudden, we are thrown into a new context, where our language is not understood, and we do not understand the language? Simply put, we cannot communicate effectively, which has implications across the board.

From a personal standpoint, language has already impacted my own ability to order food, arrange transportation and access affordable housing in KL. I don’t speak Malay, and this makes me an outsider in many contexts. I also don’t speak Arabic, Persian, Somali, Urdu or Uzbek, among other languages, makingit difficult to communicate with refugees when an interpreter is not present, which is most of the time, since interpreters cost money and there is not enough of that to go around by any means.

According to the “Ethnologue”, the most extensive catalog of the world’s languages, there are 7097 distinct languages being spoken in the world as of 2016. Currently, in the office and the refugee community at large, there are over 20 different languages spoken regularly.

I am a ____________ (insert one word from the table below to complete the sentence).


Where are you from?

Palestine. Pyālēsṭā’inamā. Bālèsītǎn. Palestyna. Phalasatīna. Palleseutain.

I don’t know what my country is called in your language.

What brought you here?

War. Famine. Violence. Drought.

There are hundreds of different words for these things too.

What I’m getting at, with all of this, is that language is complicated.

And language, in turn, complicates. 

My goal during my internship is to examine the many ways that language, with all of its nuances and all of its layers, impacts the people who work at MSRI and the refugees who access essential services. My hope is that this information will help to shine some light on one of the most prominent invisible barriers that refugees and service providers face, both in facilitating integration into host countries, and during the re-settlement process.

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