There is a huge misconception that refugees are a scary bunch, mainly due to the lack of awareness from the general public. This is why Deborah Henry has been using her voice and star power to shine the spotlight on these communities.
Since being crowned Miss Malaysia World in 2007 and Miss Universe Malaysia in 2011, the beauty queen has been focusing her energy on her humanitarian work. She was shooting an in-house documentary about refugees in Malaysia for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2008 when she realised the difficult conditions they were living in.
This prompted Deborah to kickstart a nonprofit education hub called Fugee School for refugee children predominantly from Somalia and the Middle East. Sadly, there is still no law in Malaysia that champion the rights of refugees. As a result, these refugees have little to no access to legal employment, education or healthcare.
As of October 2020, UNHCR reported that there are some 178,450 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia. From that number, 46,730 children are below the age of 18. Roughly 30% are receiving some sort of education from community learning centres.
Earlier this week was the launch of UNIQLO UTme! and Fugeelah Social Project 2.0 at the newly-opened UNIQLO DA Square. During the session, the 35-year-old acknowledged that it’s really encouraging to see when big global corporations take a global stand and offer solidarity with the refugee community. “I think it’s important that we can sit here and talk about what’s the right thing to do but I think it is so valuable when corporations and companies use their platform to get the message out there. And it also encourages the shoppers to participate and do something that has an impact, you know,” she said.
“We’ve been running Fugeelah school for 11 years now and we’ve educated over 500 refugee children and youths in Malaysia. We currently have 200 students, ages four all the way up to 20,” Deborah added. “Every child, no matter who they are, where they come from, has the right to an education, has the right to be in school, and in Malaysia unfortunately, refugee children among stateless kids are left out of education. So for us, setting up Fugeelah school was that answer to a very big problem.”
We spoke to the model-turned-humanitarian about how the UNIQLO UTme! x Fugeelah Social Project 2.0 designs reflects the Malaysian culture with 3 themes – animals, food, and sports. We also delve into her humanitarian work and her takeaway from this year.
1. On Fugeelah’s collaboration with UNIQLO
The first collaboration it was like a year and a half, or two years ago. It was similar in the sense that we used the students’ artwork and it was sold in stores. But people couldn’t design it on their own like this latest project. I think we printed a few hundred t-shirts and the proceeds went to the children’s education.
This is our second collaboration with UNIQLO. We wanted to give an opportunity to the refugee children to show what they love about our country, as well as the food, the culture, the animals, and obviously to express themselves in a really creative fun way.
2. Fun fact about using the Zentangle method in these designs.
If you look closer, it’s all these little patterns and dots and squiggles that brings it to life and it’s just a fun gift to give someone as a gift. It’s a gift that has meaning and it’s a gift that gives back. It’s unique and you get to design it yourself so that’s the fun part as well.
3. Favourite animal and sport.
Well, my Miss Universe answer was a dolphin. They are very happy animals and very intelligent. I had an opportunity to pet a dolphin when I was in Bali. They really are so majestic and incredible to look at. They’re very elegant creatures. Anyway, I told you I was giving my Miss Universe answer (laughs).
I was actually very very athletic, growing up in school, I was in my basketball team. I played volleyball. I was also on the tracks; running 100 meters and 200 meters. I’ve pretty much been consistently athletic throughout my life. Now I do boxing, I horse ride, I also do yoga and Pilates. My dad influenced me a lot cause he used to run the hurdles in Malaysia and in Ireland. So I grew up with a huge passion for sports.
4. On how Fugeelah shortlisted 10 Fugee GED (form 5) students to support.
We look for kids who are very committed and discipline. It’s a big deal to want to do those exams, because it costs money and you have to fundraise for it. We really want to make sure that the individual is committed. It’s really something that they, themselves want, and we will support them through that journey.
As the students get older, some of them drop out, some of them have to start working to support their families. Some are not interested in finishing school and doing those exams so it’s really about finding those who want to commit.
Sometimes they’re not mentally prepared for it. You may be smart enough and you want to do it but if you’re not mentally in the right place for it, you’re not going to be able to be disciplined. With Covid right now, they can’t come to class, so they have to do it at home.
5. What can we do to encourage these kids to prioritise education?
I think it’s opportunity. I think the fact of the matter is a lot of kids can’t study because they don’t have the money. They can’t go to local education institutions, so they need to go to private institutions. This is why Fugeelah is striving to offer more scholarships and cheaper options and things like that, but sometimes we still have to pay. If we can raise funds to educate these kids then it will show the community and their peers that if I work really hard, someone’s going to help and support me. It encourages them to want to achieve those goals.
6. Why initiatives like the UNIQLO UTme! x Fugeelah Social Project 2.0 are essential.
Even something like this is a huge boost of confidence. It’s going to make their day. They’re gonna go home wearing these t-shirts that they’ve done, knowing “oh my god it’s in UNIQLO”.
It’s a huge privilege and opportunity and little things like this let them know that they have a voice and it matters. We all need that in life and very often refugee children get so forgotten and so left out of everything. When they can’t even go to a Kebangsaan school, what does that say? The leaders are telling them, you don’t matter. Your life is not important, because we don’t even think you deserve to go to school. What kind of message is that fine.
And how much does it really cost us to come up with an idea or a solution that makes sure that kids are not left out of education because they are the future. They’re our future potential. These are the kids that have the potential to start companies and find vaccines for diseases. When you leave them out, what does that say about our future?
7. Summarising 2020.
This year is about counting our blessings, positive. People are in such bad situations right now, I’m just blessed that I’m able to do what I do and have what I have. I started off this year wanting it to be about gratitude for me personally. The year has been a huge test and lesson, but you realise at the end of the day what really matters.
Do visit UNIQLO DA Square or Fahrenheit 88 and show your support for the new UTMe! collaboration where 100% of the proceeds will go towards Fugee School.