Educating stateless children in Sabah

By Natasha Sim | Parents Avenue’s Writer |
All images by Natasha Sim unless where indicated.

Rashida (second left) and her friends.

Ten-year-old Rashida is hanging out with her friends outside their classroom. She says her favourite part about school is reading. 

She enthusiastically exclaims that she loves her “buku teks (text books)! 

But Rashida studies in a different kind of classroom. Unlike other schoolchildren, she doesn’t have the right papers to be enrolled in a public school. 

The school she goes to is a modest wooden structure resembling a longhouse, where amenities are basic at best. It lies hidden in an unmarked settlement somewhere in Likas. 

Classes here are divided into two sessions: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. It’s 10am, and Rashida and her friends are just waiting for their turn to be in the classroom. 

Her school is Etania School CLC Saga, one of the many hundred alternative learning centres set up across Sabah to educate undocumented children. 

Dr Kathryn (front: second right) and Mr Fong (front: first right) with teachers. They form CALC. Pic courtesy of Dr Kathryn.

Other such ‘schools’ include Madrasah Al-Hikmah and Stairway to Hope Learning Centre. Together they form the Coalition of Alternative Learning Centres (CALC) that hope to mitigate the dire effects of illiteracy and poverty for these children. 

To run the schools, administrators may rely on donor funds and support from non-profit organisations. 

According to Etania School Founder Dr Kathryn Anne Rivai, she often collects donated goods to maintain the schools she administers. 

“For example, St Francis Convent KK is a very generous school, they would often give me their old pencils, stationery and educational posters for the classrooms,” she said.  

For children like Rashida, being able to sit in a classroom is certainly something none of their migrant parents could have envisioned for the

From L-R: Julhim, Abu Nadir, Rohani, Nur Sahaya and Siti Nurain from Madrasah Al-Hikmah.

At Madrasah Al-Hikmah, Siti Nurain says that she only began attending school at age 12. She is currently 15-years-old. 

In just three years, she’s caught up to learn basic reading and writing in English and Malay. Besides that, she learns Science, Math and Islamic studies. 

Teaching skills are a focus

But more than academics, the schools place a focus on skills-based training that offer the children a fighting chance to become wage earners once they leave school. 

“We teach living skills with an emphasis on English language so these children can have a competitive advantage when they enter the workforce,” says Mr Fong Min San, a committee member of Persatuan Pengurusan Madrasah, an NGO that runs Madrasah Al-Hikmah. 

These skills may include plumbing, wiring, agriculture, handicraft, sewing and cooking. Mr Fong also says that the Madrasah is set to launch computer classes soon to teach children digital literacy. 

Most of all, Mr Fong and Dr Kathryn both mention that skills that students acquire are those that can be used out of public view, making them employable in ‘behind the curtain’ jobs.

Back at Rashida’s school, Cikgu Fatimah shows off the colourful handicrafts and artwork that hang over the classroom walls.

“All the decoration and pictures here are done by my students,” she says proudly in Malay. 

They want to go to school

Enrolment numbers are high. The parents want their children at the schools with no objection from the kids themselves. 

Out of the three schools mentioned, Madrasah Al-Hikmah is the largest in terms of enrolment. As of January 2019, it has enrolled a total of 491 students. 

Head Teacher of Madrasah Al-Hikmah Cikgu Jubairah Uddin watched the school’s population boom over time. 

“I taught 17 students when the school opened in 2006. In 2008, I had about 100 students. And now, the biggest class I teach has about 50 students,” Cikgu Jubairah said. 

Madrasah has six classrooms in total, while students are divided into two sessions a day. A total of six teachers are employed at the school.  

Meanwhile, Stairway to Hope has 378 students in total. Like CLC Saga, the school is a modest double-storey terrace building within Kg. Kalansanan, Inanam. 

Stairway to Hope Principal Emma Andrada says the school “is bursting” and they can’t possibly accept more students. It would be more than the teachers can chew. 

But students keep coming anyway, and administrators find themselves hard-pressed to say no under a strict “no child left behind” ethos. 

“At one point, students had to sit on the floor of the classroom because we just had too many of them,” Dr Kathryn said about CLC Saga.

It can be especially challenging to conduct classes at CLC Saga during the rainy season. The wooden floorboards are soaked through as rainwater filters in through the classroom’s wire mesh windows. 

Including CLC Saga, Dr Kathryn oversees a total of 12 Etania schools with some 1,000 students across the State. 

And other than the Kg Kalansanan school, there are 3 other Stairway to Hope schools with student enrolment totalling to 678 across all four schools.

Mdm Marilou (Top: third left) and Principal Emma (Top: second left) with teachers and some students at Stairway to Hope.

Not all students stay until graduation

However, high enrolment numbers do not mean that all students graduate. 

In fact, school teachers find that student attendance fluctuates between seasons. 

“Here, students usually disappear for a month during the Hari Raya season,” Emma said.

At CLC Saga and the Madrasah too, students come to school when they can afford to and leave when they can’t.

Students at all three schools have to pay a very nominal monthly commitment fee of maximum RM20 to stay in school. 

However, families often find such an amount difficult to fork out with multiple siblings that require schooling, or simply because it can still be expensive. 

For older students, they dropout often because they’ve reached an age where supporting the household income becomes more imperative than continuing their education. 

How and if the students continue school really depends on their family’s situation. Teachers have also reported students who quit school because parents were caught and deported. 

Sometimes the children’s families are required to move homes because they risk alerting the authorities by staying at one place for too long. 

Completing school can often be seen as a luxury when there are other more severe hardships to face. 

Stairway To Hope’s Founder Mdm. Marilou Chin says that only about 30 students graduated last year out of their four schools. In the coming 2019 graduation ceremony, there will be about 85 students graduates, including kindergarteners. 

School as respite from complicated home lives

Nurul Yasrah is a 9-year-old who, a few months ago, began school at CLC Saga just so she can join the other children in learning.

Her father works out of town, while her mother has passed away. She lives alone with her grandmother.

When asked how does she come to school, she said “I walk to school by myself. It’s not tiring at all. I live right down the road.”

Her friends jokingly tease that she hasn’t learnt how to spell her own name yet.

Meanwhile, 13-year-old Julhim at Madrasah travels alone to and from Asia City and Likas by public bus for school. The daily commute is a total of 2 hours.  

Clearly, the kids have no problem going to and staying at school.

After school at Stairway to Hope.

According to Emma, some children arrive at the gates of Stairway to Hope at 6.30am, when classes only start at 8am. 

“They come so early, so the teachers allow them in anyway. And they leave late. The teachers get tired. Sometimes we have to tell their parents to pick and send their children on time,” said Emma. 

After classes at Stairway to Hope, children stay around the school compound to play and sing songs. They thrive with others like them around. They are happy. 

For all the kids, school seems to have become a second home, a place of security. Maybe even to get away from difficult home lives.  

At the Madrasah, Nurain says the best part about school is having found her best friend. 

“But I’m sad because she’s leaving school next year so we won’t be able to see each other anymore,” said Nurain. 

Big hopes for the future 

Cikgu Fatimah is 62-years-old and has been teaching stateless children for more than 20 years. 

“Before the school was built for the kampung, I used to teach the kids at my own home here. Some of the students are children of my former students,” she says. 

Better than running around on the streets or loitering about, Cikgu Fatimah says she would rather have the kids congregate at school. 

“I love all of my students. All I want for them is to be able to kerja senang If they ever get to have their documents sorted,” she added.

Choir practice for some Madrasah students

“As long as they’re not stopped from getting an education, they can have a future to contribute to their family, their society. And have some dignity, you know,” Dr Kathryn says. 

Mdm. Marilou echoes Dr Kathryn’s sentiment. She said having an education gives the children an opportunity to break free from a cycle of poverty. 

Meanwhile, at the Madrasah compound, a group of students are practising patriotic songs for an upcoming performance in lieu of Merdeka Day celebrations at school.

Ask any of the students hanging around where home is and they will definitely tell you that it is Sabah. It is here where they are growing up after all. 

“Surely it’s more positive if we’re able to embrace them sooner. Give them a chance at life and to be part of society,” Mr Fong said. 

“It’s when we alienate them that problems begin,” he added. The children are vulnerable to all manner of social ills if not for proper education. 

The teenagers at Madrasah Al-Hikmah talk about their ambitions. Rohani, 15, says she’d like to be a teacher, whereas Nurain wants to be a photographer so she can travel the world. 

Abu Nadir, 15, wants to be a scientist and more specifically, “the kind that studies viruses and microorganisms.”  

The children have ambitions too. They can see a future for themselves because they are in school.

To learn more about the schools, please visit their respective Facebook pages: Madrasah Al-Hikmah, Etania Schools and Stairway to Hope Learning Centre.

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