Growing up in the affluent suburb of Damansara in Petaling Jaya, Heidy Quah had little awareness of just how fortunate she was. The Refuge for the Refugees founder tells Petrina Fernandez about her early experience teaching children from the Burmese Chin community here and the years of aid and advocacy that followed in using her voice to give them theirs.
At 18 years old — the age of shiny driving licences and college prospectuses full of promise — Heidy Quah founded Refuge for the Refugees. She had just spent four months teaching English to Chin refugees from Burma not much younger than she was, but their school, the Chin Children’s Education Centre, was about to close owing to a lack of funding.
Since the establishment of her non-governmental organisation in June 2012, Quah has expanded the scope of Refuge for the Refugees from a fundraising project for a single centre to setting up or restructuring, strategising for and supporting 35 schools (each with between 75 and 100 students), two halfway homes and a social business school across Malaysia and Myanmar.
“I grew up in Damansara Jaya with a circle of high-achieving friends, all of whom represented the school in debate and public speaking — that sort of thing. Every time we sat down together, we talked about current affairs and the gaps in addressing social problems, but there was this idea that volunteering was something you did when you had free time and extra energy,” she says. “Then you come to a point where you say, I can’t be frustrated with an unjust system if I’m not contributing in any way. I had applied for the April intake of a business degree and decided to spend the months before it started by volunteering at the school.”
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