The year was 2009, 16 year old me was on a plane bound for Kuala Lumpur with my mother and younger brother who at that time was just 15. It was a one way ticket to Malaysia with no return air fares or no tickets for the next destination.

Most people back home only knew that we were going to Malaysia to get into university but little do they know that we were running for our lives. Fast forward after the 8 hour flight to Malaysia, we had no where to go, nobody that we knew. We were all alone but we knew it was the best decision that we made.

The long process to get UNHCR certified started. Thank goodness I paid attention during English classes back in school because I could make out what the officers were saying and needed. At that time, I had no choice but to grow up for my mother, and be a big brother for my younger brother. I took care of everything, making sure we got a place to stay, negotiate with land lords for leasing of our houses, worked out where we needed to go for groceries, figure out our way around Kuala Lumpur.

I had to put my needs aside to focus on making sure my family was safe, and in that process, I forgot about myself, I forgot about my needs. A few months in, reality came crashing down hard on our family when we realise that Malaysia did not recognise refugees and we were considered illegal immigrants, my hopes of getting into university was dashed because since we were illegal immigrants, we had no rights in Malaysia. We basically had no where to go, we were stuck.

As ‘illegal immigrants’ we could not doing anything, my brother and I could not go to school, my mom could not go to work because there would be no work permit for her to work. So we did what every other refugee in our positions did, we worked; illegally.

But that was the only way we could survive. At that point, I was so mad, so mad at the world for my situation, so mad at those people who were taking things for granted and so mad at myself for not being able to pursue my dreams.

At this point, we were already in Malaysia for about 3 years, I’ve already worked odd jobs and was currently working as a barista in one of thecafes in Changkat, Bukit Bintang. There was a guy sitting by the counter and we started a conversation.

As our conversation started, I found out that he was the CEO of HELP College of Art and Technology and he found out that I was a refugee who was desperately in need of education. He gave me the opportunity to work out a plan that would allow other refugees like me a chance to get an education.

With Dr. Choong (middle) during one of our get togethers.With Dr. Choong (middle) during one of our get togethers.

With Dr. Choong during Chinese New Year a few months before we left for Australia.With Dr. Choong during Chinese New Year a few months before we left for Australia.

So I was able to propose short courses for refugees with minimal to no costs that would allow us to either gain a new skill or earn an long time knowledge. I started short courses with HELP CAT by offering courses such as IT, English courses, hair dressing, and hospitality courses and what was great about these courses was that he allowed me to attend all of them and receive a certificate of attendance.

It was not much, but it really gave me a sense of belonging in the community and the look of all the other refugees’ face when they knew they had a chance at an education is something that I will never be able to forget. It was a look of pure, unaldulterated joy and thankfulness that someone was willing to allow them a chance at an education.

5 years in Malaysia was a battle, a battle of resilience, a battle that knocked me down so many times, there were times I didn’t want to get up anymore. But I knew, deep down that if I continue to fight for them and continued to make sure they get something out of this, I would never stop fighting for them until they can stand up and fight for themselves.

Arash Bordbar

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