Activist Heidy Quah Reveals The Most Moving Untold Stories About Malaysia's Refugee Community

By Tania Jayatilaka

The director of Refuge for the Refugees recounts stories of kindness, generosity and dignity

Tatler Asia
Heidy Quah (Photo: Khairul Imran/Tatler Malaysia)
Cover  Heidy Quah, founder and director of Refuge for the Refugees. (Photo: Khairul Imran/Tatler Malaysia)

"Very often, when we talk about the refugee community in Malaysia, it's either very xenophobic or we view them as so-called charity cases to be pitied," says Heidy Quah, founder and director of Refuge For The Refugees, an NGO that provides educational support and food aid to vulnerable migrant communities in the country.

"It's time we shift the narrative, give the community back their voice and share their plight in a way that's dignifying. If nothing else, it is to remember that refugees are people, just like you and I."

Besides being an advocate for the rights of marginalised groups, Quah is also a Queen's Young Leaders Award recipient and an associate professor at Taylor's College Lakeside Campus.

Rather than add to the negative attention that refugees have received or react to the hateful comments and death threats in response to her outspokenness on this cause, Quah sets the record straight about her personal experiences and takeaways from being on the frontlines with refugees in Malaysia. She shares snapshots of grace, kindness and triumph in the face of unspeakable adversity here.

See also: How Deborah Henry Of Fugeelah Is Helping Refugee Youths Upskill

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Photo: Khairul Imran/Tatler Malaysia
Above  Photo: Khairul Imran/Tatler Malaysia

An elderly refugee man who volunteered to help

"When the pandemic first hit, I received a call from an Iranian refugee in his 60s, a chef with a very fatherly personality. Each week, he would call me to ask, 'Heidy, are you keeping alright? Do you have enough to eat? Are you taking care of yourself?'

"The pandemic had all but deprived him of the ability to work and yet he would offer help in any way he could. One time, I told him we were feeding around 1,000 families each week. Immediately, he asked if we needed help with deliveries and volunteered to help with his motorbike. We're talking about a man in his late 60s, with weak lungs and breathing problems. I was so impacted by his kindness."

The refugee volunteers who showed up early every time

"I remember last year when we were still getting used to serving a high volume of people. Our first two rounds of packing groceries took us many hours. I remember being so totally exhausted and so close to breaking down when I received a call from a refugee community offering to send 10 to 15 of their members to support us. We took up their offer and told them the call time would be 9am. They showed up at 8.30am.

"We had these 40-foot trailers coming in with groceries for 1,000 families. It was quite a sight and very overwhelming to unload. Yet, the volunteers started forming human chains, unloading the lorries with us. Each and every time they would come early in the morning, quietly finding ways to support the Malaysian community and other refugees." 

See also: Cloud Talk: Doing Good In The Face Of Adversity

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Volunteers helping to pack large volumes of food and necessities for needy families during lockdown. (Photo: Refuge for the Refugees)
Above  Volunteers helping to pack large volumes of food and necessities for needy families during lockdown. (Photo: Refuge for the Refugees)

The woman who gave from her savings

"Last year, I put out a call for donations—at that time we needed about RM60,000 (about US$14,000) each week to feed a thousand families. It was a lot of pressure on the organisation. I received a call from a refugee woman who was crying her eyes out over the phone, saying, 'Ma'am, I can't imagine the thought of families out there suffering because of this pandemic. How do I donate to your organisation to help them? I'm refugee and I don't have a bank account.'

"She ended up taking a portion of her savings and going to a cash deposit machine to bank in money to our organisation so we could continue feeding more families."

You don’t combat hate with hate; two wrongs don't make a right
Heidy Quah

Refugee teens who contributed funds

"Last year, I celebrated my 27th birthday with a fundraiser to raise RM20,000 (about US$4,800) for our outreach projects. What impacted me most was when I looked through the list of donors, I saw quite a number from the refugee community. Some were from the community here, and some were kids who came through our system and had already been resettled to the US. They are fresh out of high school but now with a little more pocket money, and able to contribute towards helping others." 

The budding young activist from Myanmar

"Mid-last year, I took on a speaking engagement with one of my ex-students named Angela. I first met her in the early days of starting Refuge for the Refugees, when she was just a timid, soft-spoken 14-year-old newly arrived with her family from Myanmar.

"Today, some nine years later, she's in her early 20s and an activist in the making. She works at a shelter caring for victims of human trafficking and victims of violence. She also speaks up about violence. After the speaking engagement, the organising team messaged Angela and said that they wanted to give her a sum of money as a token of thanks. That’s when she texted me, saying, 'Can I get them to bank in the money to your account instead?' Ultimately, she wanted the money to be sent back to Myanmar, given what is happening there. Despite everything that had happened, she was still so generous."

See also: How A Malaysian Food Startup Is Helping Refugees Rebuild Their Lives

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Refugees and stateless children in Malaysia have no access to schools and paying jobs. (Photo: Unsplash)
Above  Refugees and stateless children in Malaysia have no access to schools and paying jobs. (Photo: Unsplash)

The Myanmar refugee forced to flee twice from his country

"We worked with this Myanmar refugee on some amazing projects, documenting the stories of migrant workers when he returned to Myanmar because he felt he needed to serve his country. But he was hunted down, he received death threats and was forced to flee to the Indian border where he is right now.

"Every day is a battle for his life. He still goes out and fights from the frontlines because he knows it's important to speak up. He does it because he knows it’s the right thing to do."

Unforgettable Lessons For The Future

Despite the daily struggles of being an activist, Quah admits that she has learned a lot about determination, grit and kindness from her work with migrant communities. "The values of many in the refugee community in Malaysia are such that they don’t combat violence with violence; they continue being kind and choose to love despite the hatred from others," she says.

"It's really taught me to realise that you don’t combat hate with hate; two wrongs don't make a right. Instead, when you are faced with adversity, it’s so important to stick to your convictions, know your ‘why', and tune out all the noise."

See more honourees from the Philanthropy & Charity category of the Gen.T List.

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