World Refugee Day: On The Question Of Privilege — Raudah Yunus

In Malaysia, only 30 per cent of refugee children are enrolled in learning centres — most of which are under-funded, under-staffed and not able to provide quality education.

During my years of postgraduate studies at the University of Malaya, I signed up as a volunteer to teach at a Chin refugee school in Ampang.

There, I was assigned as a mathematics teacher to 12 to 16-year-olds. My class was once a week, and I taught the students for roughly a year and a half.

On one occasion, I had to postpone a class as I travelled to the UK to attend a conference.

When I arrived back at the school the following week, the students were eager to know why I did not turn up the week before. I apologised and reluctantly told them I had to present a paper at the University of Oxford.

Upon hearing the word ‘Oxford’, their eyes lit up and they started bombarding me with questions like how the university looked like, how it felt to be there, if I got to enjoy snow, and if they could ever get to Oxford to study.

Being a non-believer in the “prestigious university equals to real education” belief, I tried to avoid giving too many details about my trip.

Rather, I seized the opportunity to speak about the importance of studying hard and having hope, and assured the students that they could go far in life if they were ready to persevere and had the right attitude. 

But deep inside, I felt disturbed as I was aware of the bigger picture. In Malaysia, only 30 per cent of refugee children are enrolled in learning centres — most of which are under-funded, under-staffed and not able to provide quality education.

The school where I taught was located inside a shop lot, surrounded by car repair shops that constantly generated noise and dust. Public schools do not welcome refugee children, and we know little of the remaining 70 per cent of the refugee children who are unable to receive formal education – a lost generation whose potential is not being fully harnessed.

An average refugee student — with all the predicaments and disadvantages — will have to work ten or twenty times harder than an average Malaysian child, or even more, to be at par.

But the refugee child will still lag behind, as entering tertiary education involves higher fees, while securing a formal job upon graduation is almost impossible. These realisations made me doubt what I had told my students earlier.

Even if they were ready to preserve and adopted the most optimistic attitude, what are the chances of accessing higher education — let alone a world-class university — when the existing system and arrangements are against them?

Related to the debates on refugees’ access to formal education is the question of privilege. Privilege is an unearned advantage that one obtains by being born into the “right circumstances” or having the “right characteristics or affiliations” that often occur by chance.

One can be privileged for being born as a citizen of a prosperous country, or into a dominant ethnic group, or into a wealthy family.

On the other hand, one can be subjected to oppression and deprivation merely for not having the right skin colour, appearance, legal status or belonging to the right social circle.

People who are born into privilege, and have lived with it for a long time, may find it difficult to notice the advantage they have over others, as such an experience has become a daily occurrence and is therefore taken for granted.

Moreover, living with unearned advantages that are rarely challenged by society can easily contribute to a sense of entitlement; one begins to believe that he or she deserves that privilege, and it is morally right or justifiable that such a privilege is not extended to others.

This can explain why conversations that attempt to raise one’s awareness of privilege can be rather uncomfortable and thus resisted.

To appreciate our privilege is not easy, as it may need sharp observations and the ability to think critically.

An easier way to facilitate this awareness is by interacting with individuals who are outside our circles of friends. Talk to people from different ethnic backgrounds, people whose native languages are not yours, people who do not share your familiarity with a certain place or school or culture, people who experience things outside your usual routines, and people who contradict your worldview.

Such conversations can be revelations to you, especially when you realise how much you do not know, or how fortunate you are, or how many “good things” in your life are not because of your hard work.

In other words, you don’t always deserve them, but you get them anyway because of the favourable circumstances you are born into.

Nevertheless, privilege is not necessarily wrong or negative. This is because life circumstances are often beyond our control.

However, our duty is to make use of that privilege to undo the injustice it is causing.

This is not as easy as giving charity or distributing food. While there is nothing wrong with such acts (in fact, these are needed initiatives that solve urgent needs), we need to think of how we can make use of our privilege to dismantle or transform a system that continues to favour some people and discriminate against others.

We have to pose fundamental questions and engage in difficult conversations, in order to challenge existing assumptions and propose alternative ideas that can promote a fairer and more equitable society. 

In conjunction with the World Refugee Day today, I hope to raise the issue of privilege — how to be aware of it, and what to do about it.

To stand in solidarity with our refugee friends from the Rohingya, Chin, Palestinian, Syrian, Yemeni, Somali and Afghan communities is not limited to expressing sympathy or chanting slogans.

We need to start talking about privilege, and what this means to the principles of fairness and social justice that we want to uphold. 

Raudah Yunus is from Universiti Teknologi MARA.

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.

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