Behind the Fences & Gates

Written by Nabila Razali

My visit to UNHCR has opened my eyes and mind to new thoughts that I never had before.

Recently, I followed a teammate to UNHCR for a meeting related to possible new ventures for the Picha Project. I was there not only to accompany her but also to learn how to deal with clients. As an intern, there are definitely plenty of things for me to learn and pick up along the way, but I received way more that day than what I anticipated.

As we were having lunch at the cafeteria, we were joined by two UNHCR staff and subsequently another. We were eating and having some light conversations, before my teammate asked one of them if he could give us a tour of an off-limits area meant for refugees. The area was surrounded by fences and gates, and is actually the place where UNHCR manages matters relating to refugees such as interviews for documentation to be a refugee status holder, taking photos for medical and insurance aid, as well as others.

As we toured this off-limits area, I couldn’t help but feel a mixture of uncertainty and exhaustion. The facial expressions of the refugees there, made me feel what they were going through - uncertainty of their own fate. Though there were plenty of processes and procedures to go through, there was still no guarantee of whether they would receive their official ‘legal’ status - despite how dreadful and sad their stories were. And even if they were, there were still so many other questions yet to come; “What job could they do? Will they be accepted by Malaysians as part of the community?  Are they entitled to a certain form of education?” These where all I could think of, but I’m sure there were plenty more on their minds.

I could feel their exhaustion, from spending all those hours waiting for their turn to meet the officers on duty, who were doing the best that they could. Each story being more difficult than the last. Even as an observer, I started to feel more depressed, and could tell that both parties would get more and more emotionally and mentally drained over time.

At the end of the day, I still feel relatively small despite working in a social enterprise that empowers marginalized communities. We try to help as much as we can, also  doing it the right way. Still, there are plenty of refugees out there who desperately need various types of aid, be it employment, education or just emotional support. They don’t have much to survive, and every little gesture goes a long way in helping them - lend a ear and listen to their stories, and they would cherish you forever, because they feel some of their burdens are lifted when someone knows their stories. Everyone needs someone to talk to right?

Reflecting on it, the problems I face are nothing in comparison to what refugees go through. I deal with the obvious “first world problems” such as slow mobile data connection, boiling hot weather, and petty things like updating my mobile phone and losing all my contacts. In the bigger scene of things, these ‘issues’ are hardly a problem. As long as it does not physically and emotionally harm us  significantly, we can find way to handle it. We are fortunate to wake up in the morning and have our life all planned out the day before, or even be part of a larger community. There are people out there who wished they were in our shoes - keep this thought in mind. Hopefully, it will make us appreciate our lives even more, and lend a hand to those in need.