It’s that time of year again. Christmas! So, what do you get today’s teenager? The latest iPad?Personalised sneakers? A “selfie lens kit”?A smart jacket?An App store and iTunes Gift Card?The latest trendy sunglasses?A beauty pampering kit?
Most teenagers would be spoilt for choice, but the same does not apply to 15-year-old Sheila, who told me, “All I want for Christmas is for my sister to get better”.
Her older sister, Sashi, suffers from epilepsy and has been in and out of hospital.
“Is that all?” I asked.
“If it is not too much to ask, I would like our family to have a future. I would like a proper education, for me and my siblings,” she added.
Looking at Sheila, you would think she was like any other Malaysian teenager. She is slim, and the long hair which frames her face is brushed back in a ponytail. She has clear skin and a captivating smile. Her bright eyes tell you that you can easily engage with her. She exudes confidence and speaks good English.
When I first met her, Sheila spoke without hesitation when I bombarded her with questions.
The only difference is that Sheila is not Malaysian. She is a refugee in Malaysia, until such time that the United Nations is able to resettle her, perhaps in America, or she is granted Malaysian residency, whichever comes first. Sheila and her family have been languishing for the past ten years, in a life filled with uncertainty.
I met Sheila and her family, a few months ago. She could easily have passed as the unofficial spokesman for her family. She said, “I was five when I left my home in Sri Lanka.
“Father is from Jaffna province and was a Hindu. Mother is from Kandy and was a Buddhist. They fell in love and married. The country was at war at the time. Father and mother were from opposite sides – Tamil and Sinhalese.”
After the civil conflict, her parents’ union was unacceptable to some people. Despite the end of the bitter ethnic fighting, the continuing troubles caused them to fear for the safety of the family and they decided to flee.
Sheila added, “At the time, my older brother was nine, my big sister was seven, I was five and my little brother was two.
“Father went to Singapore to seek refuge but was directed to come to Malaysia.
“When he arrived, he had no food and the police beat him up. He sought the help of the United Nations. The UN recorded his story before issuing him with an identity card. Two years later, mother paid RM10,000 to an agent to bring our family over and we arrived in KLIA to join father.”
They alleged that the people from the Sri Lanka High Commission gave them problems and even threatened to kill them. Despite making police reports about the threats, the police claimed that they could do nothing.
The whole family are legal refugees and have United Nations Identity Cards (UNIC), which they acquired from the UN office in Kuala Lumpur.
Despite the UNIC, problems persisted, especially under the previous Umno-Baru/BN administration. The police would “disturb” them. Today, the family say that things have improved under the PakatanHarapan (PH) administration.
Life as a refugee is hard. Sheila said, “The government does not help us. For instance, we must pay full rates at the government hospital. There is no special treatment.
“My brothers and I cannot enrol at the local government school. As we are Christian, we attend a church/refugee school which is located in a double-storey house.
“We follow the Singapore syllabus and do mathematics, science and arts. We are unable to study the full range of subjects that most schoolchildren are required to do.”
The children are picked up from their house and attend school from 9am to 3pm in the afternoon.
Sheila said, “ I would like to be a physiotherapist and help people like my sister, to alleviate their suffering.”
David, her younger brother said, “I would like to be an engineer and build things. We have a computer, but it is very slow.” Her older brother, Michael, yearns to be a nuclear physicist.
Mother, Esther, was working in a clinic before she married, now she stays at home, to take care of her elder daughter.
She said, “The government does not offer any assistance and the UN is just as bad. We need help with the hospital bills. The medicines for my epileptic daughter can cost around RM500 per week. When she is hospitalised we fear for her life, as we have no money to pay the medical bills. We can’t take her to the private clinic as the bills are higher than in the government hospitals.
“Despite holding two jobs, my husband is still unable to pay the bills.
“The UNIC is just a piece of paper which most Malaysians consider useless. I just pray that we will gain American or Malaysian citizenship quickly.
“We do not get a living allowance from the UN and we are grateful to receive groceries from the Church.”