Illustration by Fatima Alrebh

“We Want Study”: A Malayasian Refugee School Copes with Remote Learning

The Gazelle speaks to stakeholders, including a NYUAD student, at Sharon Education Community Center, a refugee school in Malaysia.

Apr 10, 2021

“Good afternoon teacher When will open school”
“Open school la we want study”
“Hi ma'am Your school open or not now Ali no study now he no go school so please u tell me when open ur school”
Sharon Park let out another sigh as she scrolled through messages from worried parents. Park is the principal of Sharon Education Community Center, a refugee school in Malaysia that educates children who have fled their own countries and sought asylum in the Southeast Asian nation.
SECC closed and suspended all in person classes on March 18 last year when the Malaysian government implemented the Movement Control Order. Referred to as a “lockdown” by international media, the MCO mandated the closure of all schools.
Led by two dedicated volunteers with limited technological expertise, SECC — which educates children aged 5 to 13 — transitioned to remote learning with the help of other volunteers. Virtually, they continued to serve their 65-member student body. The school includes members of Myanmarese, Rohingya and Pakistani refugee communities.
Hyunbae Kim, Class of 2025 and a volunteer teacher at SECC shared that online classes were conducted via a group chat on WhatsApp with all the students and teachers in it. Most children access technology with their parents’ phones.
At 9:50 a.m., Kim would take register by having the children respond in the chat. Usually, four to five kids in the class would be missing and he never had a 100 percent attendance rate.
“Most of [their parents] don’t realize the value of education, by the time [the kids] are 15 they send them off to work at construction sites,” he lamented.
After making sure that the children are present, he proceeds to send teaching videos with assignment instructions to the group chat. After they have completed the task, they each text to notify Kim so he can send the next video. They go through five to six cycles of back and forth assignment texting on a school day.
“When it’s exam time it gets so complicated,” he sighed. “We have to make individual group chats for individual kids and randomize the questions to prevent them from cheating.”
Photo courtesy of Sharon Park, Photo taken before Covid-19
Despite her best effort, Park was unable to continue the online classes past August due to staff shortages. Since the start of the pandemic, Kim saw refugees’ homes cordoned off with barbed wire by the government to prevent them from leaving.
“[Refugees] have no rights here. You can’t get a driver’s license, you can’t get a job legally if you’re a refugee,” Kim noted. “Their houses are also very, very basic. Some of them don’t even have floors, it’s just like…. sand,” he added. “They’re very impoverished there.”
With the limited funds available, Park organized three food drives for students and their families last year. They gave out eggs, milk and cooking oil, as well as other supplies such as masks. She plans to host another donation drive this year once she secures enough money.
Photo courtesy of Sharon Park
“The urgent problem is a financial problem. Because I run this SECC School by supporting sponsors. But it was stopped [at] the end of last year,” Park expressed. She added that this made it difficult to pay rental fees for open school.
Even though the government has allowed primary schools to open fully in person on March 8, Park has decided to keep SECC shut for now as the school is located in a slum district near the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, where sanitary conditions are less than ideal.
“No one can forecast this situation right now. There are many requests from students and parents, but it is not possible to open school carelessly,” she shared. “No expert knows when things will get better or worse.”
“Children and their families always ask, ‘When can you open school? We only want to go to SECC School.’ But now I can't answer any accurate answers.”
You can donate to SECC through a crowdfunding platform set up by Kim.
Charlie Fong is News Editor. Email her at
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