There was a story Alijah used to tell called ‘The Starfish Story’. It begins with a little girl on a beach where there were thousands of starfish stranded and unable to reach the water. The little girl began to pick up the starfish one by one and placed them back in the water. After a period, a man came by, saw what she was doing, and said “Look little girl, what you are doing is pointless. You are not going to change anything.” And the little girl looked back at the man and said, “In the grand scheme of things, yes, there might not be change, but for those starfish back in the water – everything has changed.”

We cannot change the world but we can change the lives of individuals. And that is ‘The Starfish Story’.

  • MSRI Executive Director; Lia Syed

This is also the MSRI story. The woman referenced here, Alijah Gordon, was the original founder and pioneer of humanitarian efforts within the Malaysian Social Research Institute and it was her passion, intelligence, and compassion for humanity that truly shaped MSRI into the non-profit organization it is today. With about 5000 refugees currently registered from over 17 different nationalities and a history that expands over the last 60 years, it is truly this desire to impact lives positively that has driven MSRI forward. While people may not be starfish to be tossed back into water, it is the large and small points of relief that MSRI provides that impacts lives and gives rise to hope. Something that can never be considered pointless.

At times, the refugee situation in Malaysia seems so overwhelming and vast that it can feel insurmountable, your efforts almost pointless. When human rights are ignored or devalued, it can feel exhausting to once again push forward when it seems no change is forthcoming. Yet, my experience in Malaysia, with MSRI, hardly scratches the surface of the lives of refugees in Malaysia. There is no one story or experience to tell, no single solution, and yet people live and come together with hope and determination and continue to create new lives for themselves when it seems the whole world is against them. If that isn’t enough to inspire you, I don’t know what is.

My own experience has been one of listening. Listening to the stories about the lives and traumas that so many have gone through, and wondering what my role can and should be in these communities. How can I respond? As it happened, I was given the chance to be part of a community and a movement that worked together to answer direct calls for help. I was there to listen to these calls and almost every single interaction ended with a plea to please “do my best” for them. And although it wasn’t always possible to answer everyone’s requests, I know that the team I worked with and the decisions we made changed lives. Perhaps not in earth shattering ways – but the kind of differences that enable a child to go to school when she couldn’t before without a birth certificate. Or helping a family begin to appeal their rejection from the UN. These small contributions may not be earth-shattering, but they are meaningful small steps for the individuals involved.

While I may still be figuring out what my role can be in these communities and what it may be when I am thousands of miles away, it is the memory of these small but giant actions that we make that can mean the world to others. And perhaps, one day, everything can change – for the better.