A Home Away From Home

By Tessa Lim 

I remember it vividly. As I entered the little refugee school back in 2016, the children were eager and friendly, welcoming me almost instantly.

“Teacher! Teacher! Teach me! No! I want her to teach me!”

You could tell that they were smart, excited and ready to learn. Everyone was smiling and welcoming me whole-heartedly with a sincerity I had never seen before.

I was especially captivated by the face of one little girl . She had a pretty face, and she seemed happy, but her smile did not reach her eyes. My instantaneous impression of her was that she had a kind soul, but also a painful background. It was almost as if she had seen so much in the world, despite only being six years old.

She was Huai Nu, a refugee child from Myanmar. When I first walked up to her, she was shy and afraid. She ran to her elder brother, pulling away from me, probably wary and distrusting of strangers. Either that, or she couldn’t be bothered to have a conversation with me. But I liked her.

Overtime, I got to know so many of them: San Kheh, Vung Bawi, Nuam Boih, Khai Lam. One of my student’s name was Saw Thoot, which was directly translated to “Saw Blessing”. Apparently, his family name was Saw but I guessed his parents wanted him to “see blessings”. The children also always had something interesting to say. I remembered asking them to spell the word “laugh” in a spelling test but they misunderstood it as “love”. We went on trips to the National Science Museum, the bread factory and even shopped for Rohingya traditional clothes together. We were like a family.

Huai Nu began to open up, and I realized that she was artistically inclined. One day, she grabbed me a chair and told me to sit beside her. She took out a piece of paper and started drawing a man, then a woman, then a child. She told me that was her family portrait. However, her father had left her when she and her mother relocated to Malaysia as refugees. I gently patted on her back and told her not to be sad, but she did not say a word. She looked straight into my eyes and just nodded. I felt helpless and felt that she deserved better. Slowly, Huai Nu became one of my favorite students even though she struggled academically. But the silver lining was that she was independent. Even though she struggled with English, she gave it her best effort. She was tenacious, and jovial, despite her circumstances.

My job was to teach them but they have taught me even more. They’ve taught me key life lessons. No matter what your background and circumstances may be – there is always a reason to smile and laugh. Even with all the hardship they were going through, they found time to play and be joyful. They were friendly with no judgment.

It was important to me to help nurture these children into thinkers and doers; to polish these rare gems from the underprivileged community. They also made me want to be a better medical student. They made me want to study harder to be the best doctor I could be. More than anything else, they made me want to be a better person.

Just a few months ago, Huai Nu and her mother moved to America.

“Nganinkolwante, teacher Tessa!’’

“I will miss you too, Huai Nu!’’

Even though my roots are in East Malaysia, the Christian Fellowship Centre in West Malaysia will always be home to my refugee students and my home away from home.

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