Kuala Lumpur skyline, 06/06/2017
Kuala Lumpur skyline, 06/06/2017

Working with MSRI for the last month and a half has taught me so much about myself, and what the world has to offer. I cannot begin to imagine what experiences and challenges the next couple of months will bring. I chose the Education Intern position in hopes that I might occasionally be able to visit the school and connect with some children. I never imagined the complexity of this position now that I am familiar with it.

Some days, I am in charge of taking the kids on fieldtrips out of town. Other days I am working in the school with the teachers, or in the office working alongside Andrea (Director of Education at MSRI). I have taken on big tasks, like creating a festival for the students and funders at the end of the year, and overseeing that each student produce a presentable project for it. I have also updated curriculums and attendance lists for the each of the classes. I am currently teaching the IGCSE English as a Second Language course to the oldest grade in the school. I also substitute for the absent teachers and sit in on classes as a second eye for Andrea. I do this all while creating a series of pamphlets for the counsellor, organizing after-school clubs, and creating a series of standardized exams for each grade.

What I quickly learned is that I have the responsibility and power to create an environment at the school in which both the teachers and kids enjoy themselves. This means going beyond the tasks placed on me by Andrea, the secretary Haleema and the teachers. Even though I am in over my head with work, I can see the positive difference my efforts are making and I am more than happy to be working after hours. My genuine care for the school creates an environment where the other staff members care and go beyond their duties to make the school better for their students. This position is perfect for me because it has given me the confidence to take matters into my own hands, and get things done. I am very grateful for how my work here has challenged me. It has taught me that I can be a valuable aspect of this organization if I am willing to make myself one.

There is a room on the top floor of the main office building that holds the late Dr. Alijah Gordon’s book/art collection. The floor has restricted access. I was able to spend some time looking at her collection and it had me in complete awe. The art she collected is invaluable.

Upon seeing my reaction to the collection, Andrea gifted me Dr. Alijah’s first book in her autobiography, On Becoming Alijah (2003). A quote from Dr. Alijah’s book is able to explain an entire concept that I have been trying to communicate clearly myself. It is as follows “Born without volition or choice, thrown into a particular time, nationality, religion, class, circumstance, that moment placed in a position in apposition to other positions, moved – small object lacking awareness or decision – projected into that which was determined long before your age or the age of your mother.” This quote perfect outlays the concept of privilege, which is important to ponder daily when working with refugees.

I have met so many amazing people who are limited in their life choices because of where they are born – something completely out of their control. Many aspects of one’s positionality is determined before they are born. I do not think that should limit their access to basic human rights, such as food, shelter and healthcare. This is why helping refugees is something that is very important to me. I have learned a lot about my own positionality, especially as a Canadian, by observing the limitations of others. I have learned that it is important to travel, because traveling is the best way to understand other people and other ways of living. Living in Malaysia has really put into perspective what I value in Canada, and why I value it. It has made me critically think about my life choices and goals. It has been an invaluable experience. I hope I give back to the people in my community, the way they gave a new global perspective to me. I am so grateful for the meaningful connections I am able to make daily with the familiar faces in my community, and I am very excited to see what the next few months have in store for me.

Back alley of the school building, 22/07/2016

The school is a very interesting establishment. It is where I spend most of my time. When I first walked into the school to meet the teachers and students, I did not know what to expect. I knew I could not expect the same layout of the public school I went to back in BC.

The school consists of KG, grades 1 to 9, and a group of students studying to take their IGCSE exams. The school runs from 8am to 1pm, Monday to Friday. It is located in a narrow building consisting of 5 floors/4 halls connected by one central staircase. There is no playground. The school is a branch off of MSRI, but recieves more funding than MSRI since donors rush to the opportunity to support children and education. Because of this, if MSRI closes in the future due to lack of funding, SSC School has strong odds that it will stay open independently. Every child in the school is from a refugee family. This has a direct impact on how the students learn, individually and as a whole.

When students enter the school, they are not sorted by their age as they are in BC, but by their learning level. This makes for interesting classroom combinations. For example, there is an 18 year old in grade 7, while there is a 16 year old in IGCSE. Sometimes it is hard to place students. When children come to us at 19 years old, but only the knowledge of what we expect from grade 5, we either place them in a higher grade and hope for the best, or send them to afternoon classes until they are up to speed with the current curriculum.

Although there are varied ages throughout the classes, this is not what defines the classroom politics within the students. Interestingly enough, I have observed a large amount of students bully each other because of their race. Friend groups are divided predominantly by race, with darker skin being bullied more than lighter skin. This connects directly with Malaysian beauty standards.

SSC School caters primarily to Middle Eastern refugees, although there is a small percentage of Somalian refugees in the school as well. The students have a strong sense of pride for their countries. They will represent their country at every chance they get. The student’s strong sense of national pride does not stop them from interacting with others of different nationalities. Some are very young, and have lived in Malaysia for longer than their native country, yet still identify strongly with their native country. Not one student that I have met has a strong sense of pride for Malaysia or Malaysian culture. Generally, students do not wish to learn the Malay culture or language.

I think this is a defense mechanism stemmed from fleeing their native country. The refugees are at a disadvantage compared to their lives in their native countries. Assimilating to Malay culture may be seen as a sign of weakness or of giving up. It may also be a denial of their circumstances. The refugees do not know how long they will be in Malaysia for, and by not accepting their situation, they can focus on the possibility of a quick resettlement.

The discipline of the children in the SSC School is not up to par with that from BC schools, but this is completely acceptable considering their circumstances. From my observations, this is a result of a couple of aspects. For one, the children do not have a space to release their energy, such as a playground. This causes the children to act out in class and horse around in the halls. There are many holes in the wall through the hallways of the school because of horseplay.  Most of our teachers are qualified with degrees in their field of teaching, but lack the experience of teaching in a classroom setting, and dealing with the challenges of very diverse class composition.

This being said, the discipline issue stems from the larger issue of the circumstances at home of each child. Andrea has a favourite saying, “My kids are not like other students, because my kids carry baggage with them when they come to school.” This means that the students carry their problems at home with them to school. These problems can be, but are not limited to experiences of trauma, monetary stress, lack of food, domestic abuse, parental job insecurity, culture shock, and housing insecurity. Because we cannot assume that our students are coming from a stable household, we must consider their mental health when addressing their educational needs.

IGCSE classroom where I teach English to my students. Behind me, there are two white boards. 02/07/2017

The students I work with in IGCSE are a little different. They have finished their elementary school equivalent education, and are working on secondary school education. SSC School is not authorized to provide students with a reputable high school diploma, so we prep our students to take their IGCSE exams. Students are specifically selected to be in the IGCSE courses. SSC School pays for the student’s exam fee, so we make sure the students are serious and capable before they are enrolled.

I am teaching IGCSE English as a Second Language. I am very excited to teach this course, as I have a passion for English, for teaching, and for connecting with youth. It is difficult to teach English when English is not your first language. The student’s past teacher had this problem, and he was more than happy to pass this class to me. I have planned essay workshops, grammar lessons, and mock exams. I have also received the funding to buy the students novels for a novel study! I strongly believe reading a novel, and talking about the themes, motives and content will really help to improve the student’s English.

All in all, it has been an exciting first month and a half with MSRI, and I am looking forward to seeing my student’s English improve!