How Deborah Henry Of Fugeelah Is Helping Refugee Youths Upskill

By Chong Jinn Xiung

Social entrepreneur Deborah Henry on her organisation Fugeelah, which opens doors to a better education for refugee youths

Tatler Asia
Deborah Henry
Cover  Deborah Henry

In the What Matters To Me series, a Generation T honouree describes what they do, why they do it, and why it matters.

There are an estimated 179,570 refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia as of June 2021, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). In Malaysia, refugees are officially classified as illegal immigrants by the government—a categorisation that inhibits access to necessities like formal employment, education and healthcare.

To address this problem, social entrepreneur Deborah Henry founded Fugee School in 2009, a non-profit education hub for refugee children aged 4 to 20 who do not have a legal right to education in Malaysia. To date, the school has educated over 500 children.

At first, Fugee School was fully reliant on donations to maintain its operations. Motivated by the drive to create a sustainable source of income to support the school, Henry founded Fugeelah, a social enterprise that supports refugee youths by providing skills training and employment opportunities, while creating funds to support Fugee School.

Here, Henry discusses her projects in her own words. 

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Fugeelah wants to empower refugee youths by teaching them skills like entrepreneurship and craftsmanship.  Photo: Fugeelah
Above  Fugeelah wants to empower refugee youths by teaching them skills like entrepreneurship and craftsmanship. (Photo: Fugeelah)

The inspiration for the name Fugee School came from the 1990s hip-hop group Fugees. The name was actually derived from the shortening of the word “refugee” referring to some members of the group coming from refugee backgrounds. When we were thinking about a name for a social enterprise, we thought of the song by the Fugees called Fu-Gee-La. I thought it would be a fun play on words to add an ‘h’ at the end, making it Fugeelah. It’s a fun name and I like the fact it’s got a Malaysian element to it that calls back to our roots.

Part of the reason why I’m vocal about the plight of refugees in Malaysia is because there is a lot of misinformation about refugees. Many face challenges in getting access to education and they are unable work legally. We have refugees who have been here in the country for five to 10 years, yet they cannot work. The fact remains that a refugee is not an illegal immigrant. They are people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country.

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Beyond just making jewellery, the girls in Fugeelah also gain exposure to skills like entrepreneurship, as they sell and interact with customers
Deborah Henry

Fugeelah is a platform for our students to learn and hone both hard and soft skills through jewellery making. Currently, we employ four refugee youths in their 20s, who are studying to make pieces in their spare time. This also acts as a way for them to earn some income, giving them some financial independence. Beyond just making jewellery, the Fugeelah girls also gain exposure to skills like entrepreneurship, as they sell and interact with customers. They also get to hone their creative side and are involved in designing the jewellery. Our girls have been working with us for the past two years and I have seen how the girls have grown to become confident young women who are dedicated to their goals.

We have an in-house jewellery designer who provides us with professional expertise. All of us on the team collaborate to create the product. It is not a rigid process and everyone has creative freedom to express themselves. If someone has a concept they like, they share it with the team, we talk it out, explore different options and then agree together on the design for a particular collection. Following that, we execute the design from the concept provided and turn it into a product. The entire process requires expertise in a variety of different skills; it’s really a team effort.

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When the pandemic hit last year, it caught us by surprise. Suddenly, we could not get to the office due to the lockdowns. This resulted in us not being able to make any jewellery to sell for several months. That’s when I reached out to a good friend of mine, Khoon Hui, who is a designer. We collaborated to create a one-of-a-kind collection of colourful accessories that were made entirely out of leftover fabrics. This included a cocktail bag, an adjustable crossbody bag and a twilly (a long and narrow scarf). The collection was highly successful, and it was great as not only were we helping minimise textile waste, it also helped fund the examination fees for some of our students who were sitting for their IGCSE examinations.  

One of the most important lessons I've learnt is you've got to be resilient and creative while looking for opportunities. Like many businesses, Fugeelah was affected by the pandemic, but we just kept going and never gave up. I think it's a matter of where you put your energy and focus at the end of the day. Once you focus on getting stuff done, it removes the capacity to brood and focus on the negative. I think a big part of what motivates us is the direct impact of our work. It is about helping a refugee child to graduate from school and changing their lives for the better. Knowing that makes all our efforts worth it, and it gives us the strength to continue.

See more Gen.T honourees from the Philanthropy & Charity category of the Gen.T List 2020.

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