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.”
A few years ago, Esther’s father-in-law came to visit and was suddenly taken ill. With no money to help him, he died a few days after he became sick.
Sheila said, “We have only two choices. We wait to be allowed to stay in Malaysia, or resettled in another country like America. We do not wish to be sent back to Sri Lanka.
“We must wait for the UN to contact us and tell us our status. We will only know once they give us an appointment to see them.
“Our lives are filled with uncertainty. We cannot plan. We have no access to affordable healthcare. Only the UN can tell us what will happen to us, but we have not heard from them.
“I want equality because there is so much injustice.”
Her friend recently moved to America, after 11 years as a refugee in Malaysia. The family of three were only given three weeks notice of their resettlement.
She said, “My friend has finally found “hope”. She attends school and is catching up with her education, and her life. She even looks forward to her examinations. The process of helping refugees is much faster over there. The people over here are neither fast, efficient nor helpful.
“No-one tells us anything, and we are not even aware if anyone has been given Malaysian citizenship. So we wait, and wait.
“However, we would like to see some improvements. For instance, we would like to be treated equally. For my sister to get better medical healthcare or medicine. Better education. For my parents to be able to get proper jobs.”
She added, “Some Malaysians look down on us, especially after finding out we are refugees.
“At first they think we are just Malaysian Indians, but when they find out we are refugees, they call the police and send them to our house and complain about us, even when we have done nothing wrong.
“If our neighbours found out we were refugees, some would mentally harass us by avoiding us, or by speaking badly about us to others, and people stand in front of our homes just to stare at us.
“When the Malaysian employers find out we are refugees, they reduce our pay, or pay our wages late, or even refuse to pay. Reporting them to the authorities does not have any effect.”
With the UNIC, refugees can go to the Immigration Department, in Putrajaya, to obtain an approval letter to be able to work.
Under the previous government, it was alleged that the police and authorities would take money from the refugee workers, or demand money from them. The refugees are seen as Automated Teller Machine’s (ATM) on legs.
Under the PH government, this sort of abuse has been reduced, although it still happens.
Many Malaysians do not realise the suffering that refugees endure. The process to make them eligible to stay in Malaysia, or to resettle them, is slow. The children are unable to get a proper education. The adults are unable to get jobs without being tricked or taken advantage of. They would like to help and contribute towards the economy but are unable to do this.
Despite the UNIC and a letter from the Immigration Department confirming their eligibility to seek work, refugees are often caught during raids on businesses and taken to detention centres. Raids are often conducted on restaurants which use refugee labour.
Sheila’s refugee friend, from Myanmar, was caught and detained for two weeks at the Langkap detention centre, despite having a UNIC and permission to work.
The detainees were not given any drinking water and were forced to drink water from the lavatory cistern. Nor could they use the lavatory because one was shared by several people. They were not allowed to complain, nor were they given food. Her friend was rescued by someone from the church.
Sheila’s father said, “Please process the application fast. Please treat us as human beings and don’t look down on us.”
Consoling her father, Sheila said, “We feel safe in Malaysia, but despair that there is no future or job security, educational future or health security for the family, because of the slow pace of resolving our refugee status.
“I hope Malaysia and the UN will act fast, because all we want is a better future, just like other people. No more, or less.”