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Chin Refugees | MyEO Engage: WE RISE

MyEO We Rise takes a look at how EO members around the world are doing to help those most affected by the COVID-19. This time, we take a look at the stateless Chin Refugees that reside in Malaysia who could not legally earn a living throughout the course of their lockdown. EO Malaysia member Rosemary Tan took to the streets and supermarkets of Kuala Lumpur to come to their aid, with so much more on the horizon. Rosemary was recently a selected speaker at the recent Learning Lab, a collaborative online event put together between Asia Bridge Forum and MyEO Engage.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many issues to the forefront of our consciousness, emphasizing the need to keep ourselves alive, to survive. What gets lost in our focus are those who have been marginalized by their inability to help themselves. In Malaysia’s capital of Kuala Lumpur, the COVID-19 crisis has made it difficult for so many to have a sense of normalcy. The government mandated Movement Control Order lockdown has left Malaysians confined to their neighborhoods over the past few months, making it difficult to live a normal life for the most part. In the case of the more than 180,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the country are just looking to survive amidst this new normal.




The refugee situation is fraught with so many layers to it ranging from the legal to the humanitarian, already making it even more difficult for them in this trying time. So much of this is brought about because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, with those coming into the country classified as illegal immigrants. The majority of these refugees originate from Myanmar where religious oppression has targeted minorities such as the highly oppressed Rohingya Muslims and the Chin Christians. When fleeing to Malaysia, these refugees are not properly recognized by the state. This only further complicates their situation, with their rights and freedoms ranging from limited to none until proper acknowledgement by the UN Higher Commission of Refugees. These appointments with the UN HCR are difficult to acquire, with some unable to properly present documentation or prove how they were oppressed in their countries of origin.




Rosemary's organically grown assistance

During this lockdown, refugees who relied on informal labor in construction, food service, and market-based retail were left without a means to earn a living. Even the ones that were registered with a UNHCR card were not able to generate income legally under the circumstances. It was at this time that Rosemary Tan was called into action to help those she knows as the least of her neighbors.


Rosemary’s story began when she received a WhatsApp message that was sent to her by her friend Tania Lee, looking for food aid for 70 refugee families through the Zomi Association of Malaysia. These Chin Christian refugees live all across Kuala Lumpur and the neighboring areas on the outskirts of the city. Though the plan was to consolidate donations at the Zomi Association headquarters, getting them to each family would prove to be quite a challenge. Given the MCO limitations, helping to feed these refugee families would require a bit of creativity, and a lot of help.



The growth of Rosemary’s initiative to feed these families was entirely organic, with no formal framework to it. As long as you were able to commit to helping in some way, your assistance would be welcomed— because it was badly needed. What started as a call for 70 families increased every week to include more and more households. By May 23rd, over 1,340 families were regularly receiving food aid from Rosemary’s volunteers.


The first major challenge they faced was getting enough food to distribute. Discussions with the Zomi representatives revealed that a concise shopping list with just eight items would be able to feed a family for about two weeks. That list consisted of: rice, cooking oil, eggs, potatoes, onions, dhaal, salt, and sardines, with a total cost of only RM 100 or approximately USD 25.


The challenge then wasn’t so much in funding the donations, but in finding ways to get enough food to donate. To prevent hoarding, supermarkets around Kuala Lumpur had put hard limits on the amount of food that could be bought at any one time. This meant that anyone looking to give would need to make multiple trips when shopping: one for their own homes, and another for their donations.

Making their way round town

Consolidating and distributing these food items would prove equally challenging for Rosemary and her group of volunteers. In Kuala Lumpur, residents were limited to a 10 km area of movement, only being allowed to leave for essential travel. With this in mind, Rosemary became command control for the Zomi Association, helping organize volunteers based on their neighborhoods. This logistical support would help get these relief goods to where they needed to go. To accomplish this, she enlisted the help of over 100 volunteers from 12 formal groups across, including some from EO Malaysia, to help distribute to families in their respective areas.


As the number of families grew, so did the challenges. Some volunteers had to avoid police checkpoints to reach families in need outside their 10km area, breaking some lockdown protocols in effect. These brave volunteers, however, knew that the refugees would hungry without these donations, and so they took the risk. Luckily, no one to date has been confronted with legal charges for trying to aid in the plight of these refugees. Thankfully, MCO restrictions have since eased, making things more manageable for all parties involved.




Aid now, reform on the horizon.

Throughout the course of this food aid initiative, more underlying problems were made evident as lockdown restrictions were slowly eased. In talking to grateful benefactors, Rosemary and other volunteers learned about the Chin refugees' next set of problems as things started returning to a semblance of normal.


One of the requirements for workers who were seeking employment or returning to their old jobs was proving that they were negative for COVID-19. Regardless of whether or not these jobs were legally sound, the burden was still on the individuals to get themselves tested. Seeing as this was a logistical and financial long shot for the refugees, Rosemary again stepped in to help. Through the EO Network, she began making inroads to get those who were looking to work again tested, with donations covering all related expenses.


With refugees returning to work, their children would be left behind. This would mean that only one parent could potentially leave to work a low income, possibly illegal job. With the educational situation in flux, and day care type facilities non-existent, these problems loom large for Rosemary and her fellow volunteers in the coming months.


At this point, intervention with the UN HCR, EO Malaysia, and other social enterprises & NGOs would be in the best position to help the Chin refugees better adjust to this new normal that is becoming a reality in Malaysia. They will be needing all the help that they can get to ensure that these refugees have a brighter future ahead.




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