Stories from the field

Author Yasmine El Hamamsy

Yasmine El Hamamsy – Podcast 3: Interview with Lia Syed

In this podcast I interview the wonderful Executive Director of MSRI, Lia Syed. In this Lia speaks about MSRI and its creation, its relationship with the Malaysian government and shares a few thoughts on the rhetoric surrounding asylum-seekers in public realms.

This is a short excerpt of our discussion, but I hope you enjoy it anyway!

Thank you for listening!!

Yasmine El Hamamsy – Blog 4: An International Education

Since I have been at MSRI, my main role has been acting as a kind of administrative assistant to the Sahabat Support Centre School (SSC) and the School Manager. I print books, make curriculums, make student lists, help organize activities, and educational support to address student needs. By far though, the most wonderful parts of the position are the frequent visits next door to the school itself. Within the three-level-office-building-turned-educational facility, like any school, are endlessly dynamic and complicated tiny humans that insist it was not really their fault that the sink broke off the wall. Really, it wasn’t.

Here though, in the realm of communication our school becomes very unique. When students try to explain themselves; why they are crying, why their friend is crying, why they cannot go to class, how the sink fell off the wall – there is a literal loss for words. In particular, there’s a loss for English words. Due to the diverse backgrounds of each child, the school administration has established a streamlined language for everyone to follow, this attempt to be linguistically inclusive is the complex and exception-riddled English language. In classrooms filled with Farsi, Arabic, Dari, Urdu, Somali, and French – English is established as the common denominator due to this expansively diverse environment.

English becomes not only the most convenient way to align the students, teachers, and facilitators but the most necessary way. The school’s purpose is to offer education to refugees and migrants within Malaysia; a demographic seeking resettlement, primarily in English-speaking countries. The primacy of English in the SSC School is an attempt to equip its students for their future – it is to serve the purpose of all educational facilities.

Elephant Building

Each child’s, so far short, but individual history ensures that many different English levels will be found in one class. Just as you might find in any education, activity, practice; each child has a different ability and strength in picking up languages. The teachers themselves have varying degrees of English, all of them practicing it as their second, third, or even sixth language. On the one hand, there a huge number of people experiencing this generally complicated and unclear world at some of the most complicated and unclear ages – in particular, adolescence. Whether or not we are fluent in a language, we may not find it in ourselves to be able to express, let alone understand, our thoughts or feelings. To address this mutually external and internal struggle, a tightknit and highly involved educational environment, or community really, has grown.

Elephant Built

The interaction of varying linguistic abilities creates an incredible dynamic of support between teachers and students. Whether it is during a lesson, or to solve your standard elementary school, lunchtime argument, everyone is constantly practicing a system of language cooperation. In class, students with a better grasp on English and the topic being taught, request to explain what is happening to those which they know may not understand at all. Students, teachers and administrators translate for each other so that each party has the opportunity to be understood. Throughout most of my own educational experience, there was a degree of expectation that things can be individually practiced and then understood. Something not necessarily discussed in class but occurring constantly are lessons of human interaction, or communication. Here, these lessons, along with math and science lessons, are distinct throughout the day, relying on teams and cooperative support, because without them not one person knows what is really going on. Things happen slower sometimes (most of the time), but they happen together. 


Yasmine El-Hamamsy – Blog 3: Creating Opportunity

My previous blog posts have been a relatively narrow, and almost simplified, discussion of the status of illegality that an individual might be subjected to. In this, I have critiqued the national and international systems in place that work against individuals who are displaced or seeking refuge, and inhibit them from accessing certain rights, freedoms, and opportunities. Sidelined in my own discussion, though, are the ways that people are actively working against this system.  

On the one hand, the fact that I’ve neglected this aspect doesn’t really make sense to me. The simultaneous confrontation of, and effort to work through, the system is such a core aspect of the Malaysian Social Research Institute (MSRI), it should have been an obvious point to raise. At the same time, it makes me realize the extreme naivety I had (still have, only maybe a bit less extreme) at the beginning of this internship. At the beginning, I was still in a state of processing how and why human rights were not being afforded to certain individuals, those deemed “illegal.” And, although there’s still endless information to be processed and learned day to day, I’m starting to catch up with MSRI’s pace. The institute is not only recognizing the infringements on basic rights that are occurring, but they are responding to them. MSRI has an ongoing developing role as an active advocator and channel for human empowerment for those who have been categorized as illegal within Malaysia.

MSRI has an incredible and dynamic grass-roots approach to supporting refugee and migrant communities in Kuala Lumpur. It is an organization focused on directly addressing the issues that affect its clients, those who have been displaced from their country of origin and cannot properly access rights. MSRI, those who contribute to it and take part in its programs, create a cooperative and empowering structure. Its foundation is grounded in the incorporation of each stakeholder in the most individually fitting way possible. In particular, this occurs through a project of MSRI, the Sahabat Support Center (SSC).  Despite its role as a support center, it is simultaneously supported by its clients who act as volunteers in the services MSRI tries to offer. Teachers, translators, nurses, each displaced from their own country, and working to enable others to access services that may not be accessible otherwise. At the same time part of this team includes the local, and foreign, “legal” individuals organizing, and administering to fit the various pieces together. Each individual, no matter the state-deemed title of legality, plays a unique and important role, making it possible for each other individual to simultaneously play their own role.

Through this system on cooperative support, MSRI has created a unique community within diversity. Something that should not be as unique as it is, yet demonstrates the institute’s progressive approach to human interaction and cooperative support. As a prominent aspect of this diverse community, language plays a massive role in these interactions. Language, and the ability to take part in this form of self-expression is one central method of individual empowerment. Being able to speak and be understood eases the process of addressing your own needs. At MSRI, this form of self-expression is encouraged through its systems of interpreters, and language training. In the clinic, translators and nurses, both legal and illegal, enable others to access physical, and mental healthcare. In the hopes that families will be resettled, and since both Malaysia and resettlement countries speak English, the primary and secondary school programs focus on English language development. English classes are also available for adults. In addition, programs for economic empowerment are facilitated and supported by the SSC and MSRI structures. This includes cooking and vocational training, such as craft-making. These crafts are sold and 100% of the profit returns to the specific person who created the craft.

As the programs, and numbers of those involved, expand, cooperative growth is a necessity to maintain functionality of the supportive system created within MSRI and SSC. A positive feedback loop is established, more individuals seek support, and therefore more individuals can offer support. As people join, they bring along their unique experience and ability to be incorporated into the system, modifying its functionality along the way. As an organization MSRI is still working to establish a more rigid and fixed structure. At the same time, its fluidity is a strength that allows adaptability to variables, opportunities, and numbers. This freedom of evolution, particularly as a contrast to the strict, and limited systems of state structures (i.e. of human legality), continues to create and recreate the structure of MSRI and SSC. It demonstrates the importance, and the ability, of humans themselves to adapt. In its many projects, the institute attempts to provide a structure that this adaptation and human ability can grow through, addressing limitations, and cooperatively creating opportunities.

Yasmine El-Hamamsy – Blog 2: The Globalized Bottleneck

My second blog post discusses the UNHCR’s system of processing and admitting refugees. It also discusses some interactions between asylum-seekers, the UNHCR and the Malaysian state. Thanks for reading! Any feedback and advice would be the most welcome.

The 1951 UN Convention on Refugees established the definition of a “refugee” as well as the requirements of a signatory state to protect those fitting this definition. The 1967 Protocol then extended the definition to refugees those that come from outside of Europe and without any temporal limitations. Previously, states had the option to recognize refugees only as those from Europe and prior to January 1, 1951. Due to Malaysia’s position as a non-signatory of either mandate, they have no obligation to recognize refugees and provide support or protection to displaced individuals. For this reason, external and non-governmental actors are necessary in order for refugees and asylum-seekers to have access to support and protection. Due to their government-established illegal status, this protection includes that from the state’s ability to detain or deport these individuals.

Before having access to these protections, individuals must be recognized as refugees by the UNHCR. To do this, they must go through the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process (a process which has changed regularly since I began my placement at MSRI). This might take up to one year and is described by the UNHCR as a basic interview to determine the eligibility of an individual to claim refugee status. In this interview, interviewees must provide biological information (including any and all forms of identification documents), statements on how and why they left their country and any UNHCR issued documents.

The following interview is a Vulnerability/Risk Assessment. It determines the applicant’s eligibility to access UNHCR services and what vulnerabilities an individual or family may have. This assesses the Best Interest of the Child (BID), the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) vulnerabilities and medical vulnerabilities. Those determined by the assessment to be vulnerable will receive the aforementioned RSD interview. At this point, they are either recognized as a refugee or again risk being rejected. Rejection at the RSD level can be appealed. If an individual is recognized as a refugee they have access to the Resettlement Process. Resettlement entails moving to a third country where resettled individuals should have access to rights, legal employment and education. As mentioned, getting to this point may take years. On top of this, the Resettlement Assessment process alone could take anywhere from a couple months to a couple more years.

Although individuals may make it into the Resettlement Process, “of the 14.4 million refugees of concern to UNHCR around the world, less than one per cent is submitted for resettlement,” ( These submissions are then assessed by the countries of relocation themselves. In 2014, 73,000 of the 103,890 submitted refugees were successfully relocated. Protection, refugee status, and resettlement opportunities for individuals becomes a system of ever-decreasing bottlenecks reliant on third-party observers and their assessments of the subjective experiences of applicants. While Malaysia as a transit country resettled the highest number of individuals in 2014 (about 10,000), as the size of the bottlenecks narrow, with less and less individuals being recognized as eligible for the subsequent step, more end up trapped in a legal limbo. Despite having some limited protections from the UNHCR, this position still poses the risk of detainment and issues of unemployment and a lack of access to education remains.

By issuing UNHCR cards to refugee and asylum-seekers, the UNHCR attempts to validate these individuals’ lives in Malaysia. Although it removes some pressure from the state itself to address the constant influx of asylum-seekers to the country, the state criticizes the UNHCR’s agency within the state. On August 15th of this year, Malaysia’s Minister of Home and Immigration insisted that the UNHCR stop issuing refugee status cards. In particular, Shahidan Kassim emphasizes on the UNHCR’s lack of diplomatic status in Malaysia, saying the organization is “doing it wrong by issuing the cards without informing the Home and Immigration Department.” He insists that “foreigners wanting to apply for refugee status” go through the country’s legal procedures. These are evidently convoluted statements because, as has been mentioned and as Kassim himself recognizes, Malaysia remains a non-signatory of the UN refugee mandates. Additionally, he adds that those breaking the law should be deported immediately. Through this speech, Kassim simultaneously suggests that there are legal means for refugees to stay in Malaysia, yet acknowledges that, in reality, there are not.

In this way, not only are the UNHCR’s systems of resettling refugees complicated and long-winded, in Malaysia, the bottlenecking effects receive constant pressure from the state. People are being pushed out, while the available exit is constantly narrowing. The lack of resettling countries, their low acceptance rates of refugees, along with a lack of acceptance in the society’s of transit countries and the inability to return to countries of origin, places the lives of individuals in limited spaces without options. Kassim’s speech frames the discussion of refugees in such a way that it is those seeking refuge and the UNHCR which are infringing on legal lines. While this is debatably true, when we compartmentalize law to their individual states, it disables global development and is ineffective in its purpose.

Humans are not compartmentalized to their individual states. Laws are allegedly created to protect people, as globalization and migration (forced and voluntary) continue to expand, states and laws must adapt to this. Legality and state borders as intangible man-made structures have the ability to be flexible. For this reason people should and can be protected within their migration. At the very least, since mass-migration and human displacement have already occurred, attempting to maintain laws which try to undo this is neither beneficial nor reasonable. The same is true of resettlement countries. Continuing to deny access to humans does not prevent the movements or influxes of refugees and migrants from occurring. It just incapacitates livelihoods in an awkward, bottleneck-shaped world.

(This image is typically used to explain a phenomenon of genetics and gene variation, but it demonstrates the point here alright too.)

Yasmine El-Hamamsy – Podcast 2: Some Perspective from Inside the System

Hello all!

In my second podcast I talk with a wonderful, unnamed coworker and friend of mine who is currently being processed through the UNHCR’s ressettlement program. She briefly talks about the system itself and was kind enough to share a few thoughts on her own experience as a refugee. Never someone to discuss her own attributes, I will share a few of my impressions of her as an individual. As she will discuss, she is the supervisor of the Sahabat Support Center (SSC) School, a job that takes some incredible patience. She handles it with a constant awareness of and attentiveness to each student, despite how her modesty would surely deny it. Although we joke about her love of having days off, her dedication to the SSC School is obvious. Her and I are both 21 years old, and while she never has a bad word to say about her work or coworkers, one of the first things we ever discussed was about how she was trying to find a University to attend, to go back to school herself. She said I am not a teacher, right now I do not want to be a teacher, I want to be a student. Not only is this another stark realization of my own privilege,  a student, here to visit and learn, but is evidently another unnecessary effect of systematic usages of legality as a category for humans. And still, this thoughtful and soft-spoken individual does what she can, working and dedicating her time and energy for her family and their well-being. I hope you enjoy this short introduction to someone I have been fortunate enough to get to know over the past few months. Thanks for listening!

Yasmine El-Hamamsy – Blog 1: The Privilege of Legality

In my first blog post I begin to discuss my own position as a legal body in Malaysia and some of the inconsistencies that come with categorizing humans in abstract terms of legality.

As a visitor to the state of Malaysia, I am required to leave the country after the three month visa stamped into my passport expires. I can then return to the state’s borders and renew my visa with an identical stamp. Upon entrance, I might be questioned on my intentions within the borders, although this has yet to happen either time I’ve interacted with border control. In general, my experience at the border has been a smooth process. Additionally, if something was to prevent me from entering, returning to my country of origin does not pose any risk to me and so is still a possibility. Validating visas is not such a simple process for individuals who may not have the option to return to their own origins.

Malaysia did not sign the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. For this reason, the state has no legal requirement to recognize individuals fleeing war or persecution as refugees. The state is not obligated to support them. Despite this, Malaysia non-discriminately allows anyone to acquire three month visas and enter the country in the first place. In ways, this is a good thing; it temporarily gives displaced individuals land, albeit without any conditions to ensure livability. For example, there is no access to government healthcare, education or formal work. On top of this, individuals seeking refuge and asylum have to find a way to remain legal.

There are limited options, for example, individuals can apply for a UNHCR card and relocation. Relocation most often takes years though, for those who are accepted, and for many others the process becomes a cycle of rejection and reapplication. The initial three month visa will therefore inevitably expire. At this point, exiting and reentering to renew it becomes a risk, outstaying the visitor visa becomes a risk, existing “illegally” (according to the authorities) becomes a risk. Any of these may result in an individual’s detention and deportation. Individuals are forced to choose between being undocumented or “illegal” as it is often referred to, and being in their state of origin.

The existence of the “illegal,” entails the existence of the “legal,” and through no action of my own, I’ve been granted the privilege of assuming such a complex title. Wielding an American passport, there seems to be a common assumption that I am a temporary tourist with no particular reason to outstay my welcome. There is the assumption that I have every intention to return to my country of origin. Through this simultaneously necessary and possible action of being stamped by some authority figure, I am legal. For some, this process could be considered an inconvenience. In reality, the simple action of validating my existence and residence within a border is a privilege allowed by my citizenship, my circumstance, as well as by any other preconceived notions a border control official may have about me.

This unquestioned positionality, again, assumed without any effort of my own, simply by being born in the United States of America and living for an extended time in Canada, grants me these assumptions by others and I am therefore given the freedom of mobility. I am privilege to this freedom for various possible reasons. These reasons may include that neither country that I have ever known to be home is in a state of war (although continue to take part in combat abroad including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and South Sudan to name a few – They may include that I am not of a persecuted group. They may include that the countries I have resided in are perceived to be relatively economically stable, livable and socially-conscious. Whether these perceptions are true is another matter. This repetitive validation though, the ability to continuously enter and re-enter Malaysia for legalizing myself, is not available to just anyone. The fact that these perceptions exist, are completely outside of my control and donate to me the freedom of mobility entail that for others; those coming from states experiencing conflicts, economic instability, environmental hazards, the result can be the opposite. Others’ circumstances, similarly outside their control, and the perceptions that might follow, deprive them of their freedom of mobility and with that their legality.

Legality, then, exists as a standard of circumstance; your circumstances and the circumstances of your home-state enable or disable your individual legality. If legality of a human is assumed to be necessary, then the circumstantially legal body in their circumstantially livable state must holds the perception that because their own body has occupied a certain corporeal space for their lifetime, they have the right to continue to occupy this space. By extension, because another is new to this space, this new body should be labeled “illegal” if it tries to share this space. But why should this be necessary? The legalities of both space occupiers are circumstantial, an inconveniently inflexible and uncontrollable criterion to have on a human. The necessity of discriminating between the legal and illegal, something based on chance, is unclear.

In the discussion of someone’s identity, legality is typically not discussed, nor is it something the “legal” actively consider. Through the creation of legal and illegal lines, those who are legal and deny others the right of this position impose illegality on others. They are required to accept and identify with this position, and legality has to be actively considered. The ability for a state to declare particular persons legal or illegal creates a factor for discrimination that is controlled by those who establish legal lines. It is a discrimination that is generally irrelevant to those deemed “legal” and uncontrollable to those subjected to the “illegal” identity. All the while, whether you are relegated to either category is a matter of what space your body has existed in over a period of time.

This then raises questions over whether the space is livable, and whether it will remain reliable in its livability. The combination and unpredictability of conflict and climate change, two predominantly human-induced issues, are only examples of reasons that, more likely than not, it is not possible to ensure the livability of land. So even if the temporarily “legal” persons self-centeredly establish legal and illegal categories of humans, we cannot ensure the maintenance of our own legality. These lines fail to serve whatever purpose we had for establishing human illegality in the first place. Legality reliant on circumstance is a line that anyone may be forced to cross at any time.


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