Forum: Education builds dreams, but not necessarily for refugees

A talk by a Rohingya refugee in Malaysia explains why a country’s legal status is key to fair shot.

By Gerrit Hansen / Herald Forum

In October, I was part of a multi-national team of observers of relief work with Rohingya refugees in Malaysia.

Experts disagree on the origin of the Rohingya, a people who have lived in Myanmar for generations but never gained citizenship. They are a people group without a country. When the Myanmar government began purging their country of them, the Rohingya fled in many directions. Some made it to Malaysia. There, too, they have no citizenship, cannot attend schools, cannot get work visas, and therefore are dependent on the relief efforts of the United Nations and other nongovernmental organizations.

During my visit, I heard the following address from a 15-year-old teenager:

“My name is MJ, and I’m 15 years old. Today, I’d like to give my opinion on the phrase, ‘With education, the world is your oyster.’ This means that once we have a good education, all life’s opportunities are open to us, and we can achieve anything within human reach.

“While education may unlock opportunities like having a better chance at securing prestigious jobs or creating connections with influential people, sadly, this doesn’t apply in every case. Hence, I disagree with the premise. In my experience, many other factors limit a person’s opportunities, not just the lack of education.

“Some of those factors may be race, skin, gender, physical abilities, fortune and legal systems. For example, someone lacking legal identity documentation is unable to travel abroad freely and lawfully. In this case, the world, quite literally, cannot be that person’s oyster.

“Most people are not immune to a country’s laws. Hence, having a good education doesn’t allow a person to defy legal systems. For example, the persecution of the Rohingya has caused us to escape to other countries in ways that are dangerous and difficult, even life-threatening … and illegal. In reality, we’re being denied the right to live, and this has nothing to do with whether we are educated or not.

“One’s opportunities may also be limited due to discrimination. Nobody can magically change the opinion of another. If an influential person is prejudiced against you, most of your efforts to achieve a goal can go to waste because that person holds the power to make life decisions for you. Imagine putting a lot of effort into realizing a dream, but all goes down the drain due to someone’s biased judgement of you. In Malaysia, refugees are deemed to be a lower class of people because we’re foreigners. Therefore, the jobs available to us are manual or labor-intensive jobs. Even those with a higher education are unable to get decent ‘work’ due to either discrimination or anti-migrant labor laws.

“In conclusion, I don’t think education is the only key to the door of endless dreams. Many other factors may restrict one’s opportunities. We are told that every person is born equal, but the reality is that many are treated unequally due to things they have no control over. Until there is true equality, having an education alone cannot open all life’s opportunities to us. Thank you very much for your time and attention.”

MJ’s personal aspirations are to be a good influence on oppressed minority communities, to spread positivity, and to inspire others to do the same. He hopes to someday be able to travel abroad, become a computer programmer or possibly an electrical engineer. He’s hoping to gain permanent status in Malaysia but would prefer to move to South Korea or Japan because of their declining populations, or a country in Europe with established welfare for refugees.

Gerrit Hansen is an Everett native who lived for 26 years in Indonesia before returning to the United States in 2016. He now lives in Lynnwood.

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