Anwar Sadek Shah Ahmad, left, sits with with volunteer teacher Haekal Kamarulzaman, 24.
CNN  — 

Every weekday morning, about 70 students stream into a house in a quiet neighborhood on Malaysia’s Penang Island.

The children are Rohingya refugees and the house is a private school where they learn Malay, English, math and science.

This life is light years away from the one the children left behind in Myanmar.

“People were getting hit and killed and the police were arresting people. My whole village was burned down,” 13-year-old Anwar Sadek Shah Ahmad says softly, cowering into his teacher’s shoulder.

Anwar and his family fled their fishing village in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in 2013 after violence broke out.

His grandmother, he said, only fled Myanmar last year and is now in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, where more than 680,000 Rohingya have fled to since August 2017.

There are thousands of children like Anwar in Malaysia — he’s among the Rohingya refugees who escaped from Rakhine State by boat largely before 2015, when Kuala Lumpur began turning back Rohingya arrivals.

Even though they consider themselves the lucky ones, those who made it to Malaysia still lead lives fraught with risk and hardship.

“They have no legal rights — no right to work, no opportunity for mainstream education, and are obliged to eke out a very difficult living in the grey market economy of the country,” said Richard Towle, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Representative for Malaysia.

This is the case for all refugees in Malaysia. Most of the 150,000 refugees there are from Myanmar, but there are also Pakistanis, Syrians, Yemenis and Palestinians.

Younger students doing colouring work.

Anwar’s father has been working illegally in Penang since 2006 and paid smugglers to bring over his son, daughter and wife by boat. Anwar also has an infant brother who was born in Malaysia. The family are now registered with the UNHCR.

The UN body has registered 62,000 Rohingya refugees in Malaysia, but the organization estimates there could be another 30,000 to 40,000 who are there illegally and don’t have official refugee status – obtaining it is a lengthy process that can only happen in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.

“UNHCR Malaysia prioritises refugees in immigration detention, vulnerable refugees who have come to UNHCR from referral partners including government agencies, and others who have been interviewed and found to need UNHCR’s protection and support,” said Towle.

It’s not clear whether Malaysia will accept any of those who have fled since August, an exodus that has lead to the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis in Bangladesh.

The Muslim Rohingya have been denied citizenship in mostly Buddhist Myanmar since 1982, and while the group has long been discriminated against, the situation has deteriorated significantly in the past few years. Between 2012 and 2015, more than 112,000 Rohingya fled, largely by boat, to Malaysia.

In September 2017, Zulkifli Abu Bakar, the director-general of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency said those fleeing violence in Myanmar would not be turned away, and that they would be provided temporary shelter.

But in 2015, Wan Junaidi Jaafar, the Malaysian Deputy Home Minister, said the Rohingya arriving in the country illegally would be turned back.

“We cannot welcome them here,” Wan Junaidi said, adding that if the country continued to welcome them “hundreds of thousands” would come from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

CNN reached out to Zulkifli as well as the country’s Ministry of Home Affairs for this article but did not get a response.

The latest exodus was sparked in last August, after an attack on government border posts by a Rohingya militant group resulted in a brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s military. Refugees poured into Bangladesh with horrific stories of systematic rape, mass killings and arson – although Myanmar’s military denies killing any civilians or committing atrocities.

Madam Jubairah Bashir, 34, in her rented room with her son Mohammed Arafat Bashir 13, and her five-month-old infant Mohammed Fahet Bashir. She says she's happy her family is together but would like to return to Myanmar.


In Malaysia, schools such as the one Anwar goes to, have sprouted up because while the country tolerates Rohingya presence and the UNHCR has issued them refugee status, they are still officially considered illegal migrants and therefore can’t go to regular schools.

This limits their options to schools run by non-government organisations, or religious schools known as madrassas where they learn Arabic and study Islam.

According to the UNHCR, there are about 50 schools in Malaysia run by non-governmental organisations educating Rohingya children.

Anwar studies at the Penang Peace Learning Centre, also known as the School of Peace. On the morning CNN visited, Anwar and the older students were being taught math while the younger students, aged three to six, did coloring. Their classroom was also home to two pet rabbits.

All classes are held in Malay, or Bahasa Melayu, the country’s national tongue. The kids have picked up the language despite arriving with no knowledge of Malay just a few years ago.

“Malay is easy, we hear it everywhere, but English is hard,” says Rosmin Kayas, 12, who arrived in 2014.

The School of Peace was founded by Kamarulzaman Askandar, a political science lecturer at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, who learned about the Rohingya’s plight while doing research.

He said: “I was sad about how bad their lives in Malaysia have been, that they can’t work and that their children do not have access to free education.”

The school started as weekend classes using space in the local religious school. As the student population grew, Kamarulzaman rented a terrace house and hired three teachers so the school could run five days a week.

But there are huge challenges. They struggle to find the RM6,000 (US$1,471) needed to run the school each month and neighbors complain about the school being in their neighborhood, because of the noise.

The school is mainly funded by individual donations. “Other organizations like the UNHCR also helps from time to time with school materials and training support for the teachers,” he said.

Abdul Syukui, 40, sitting with his wife Hamidah Gonumia, 30, and younger sons Sabarek Khan Abdul, 8, and Nojumullah Abdul.

Most frustratingly, he says, he has difficulty keeping the children in school.

“Older boys would be asked by the families to look for jobs, while older girls would be asked by the parents to help the families at home, and to be married off when they come of age,” Kamarulzaman says.

Rosmin’s sister, for example, is only 13, but was pulled out of school early this year to help out at home when their mother got pregnant.

Kamarulzaman says there is also little incentive for older kids to stay in school since the school only teaches the elementary school syllabus, which is typically for children aged seven to 12.

He said he wants to start teaching the secondary school syllabus — if he can secure funding that will provide the teachers and the necessary space.

Students sit in class at the Penang Peace Learning Center.

What next?

Experts say Malaysia should look at improving the Rohingya’s access to employment, healthcare and education.

“It is really about livelihood — being able to work and to feed their families and to have enough money to use services from the market. If they cannot access government services, they need money for healthcare services and to send their children to school,” Oh Su-Ann, a visiting fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.

Towle from the UNCHR says he can understand why Malaysia is afraid committing towards formal arrangements for the refugees might cause more to arrive.

“We believe that a carefully managed registration scheme, where UNHCR and the Government, working closely together, can mitigate the risks of this but could also deliver the positive dividends to Malaysia and to refugees,” he said.

But despite the difficulties with work and education, the Rohingya students and parents at the Penang school say they are happy.

Malaysia is peaceful compared to what he left behind, says Anwar. Now, he spends his free time playing football with new friends from the neighborhood.

Likewise, Jubairah Bashir, 34, who brought three children to her illegal migrant husband in Penang in 2013, says she has picked up basic Bahasa Melayu and can buy her groceries. She has also made Malaysian friends.

“If I can, I want to go home to Myanmar. But otherwise Malaysia is good and the children have school here,” she says.

“At least the family is together now.”