Recently, I met up with a dear friend and fellow entrepreneur for coffee at a neighbourhood café to do some in-person, face-to-face catch-up: something we cannot do on Facebook, even if we do read each other’s post practically every day. I sometimes wonder why we allow our friendship to be relegated to mere Posts, Comments and Likes in cyber space when we literally live a stone’s throw away from each other. Such is the downside of modern lifestyles.
My friend’s name is Gwo Yunn; a bubbly young lady who is ever generous with her smiles and even more so with her laughter that usually punctuate our conversations. She also happens to be the Scriptwriter and Director of the movie KiaSu, a Malaysian-Taiwanese co-production which premiered in cinemas locally and in Taiwan in 2014. Apart from wanting to do what friends traditionally do when they meet up, I also specifically wanted to ask about her work with refugee children in the heart of Kuala Lumpur – something I have known her doing for several years now.
We soon settled into the cosiness of the café, ordered our mugs of Latté and began catching up on our separate life journeys in general. An hour and halfway through our coffee later, I asked her to talk about her work with the Chin refugee children so that I may write an article on it for my blog. It was in my opinion, about someone – who is already doing well – doing good and doing more. As she began to relate her work with these children, I noticed a definite shift in her mood – from casual and relaxed to high-energy passion.
For me, hearing her speak with passion was rejuvenating, but hearing what she was telling me was indeed sobering.
How did you first get involved with the Chin children at the centre that you are helping out?
Well, I didn’t really start there. Ignorant me first got to know about the refugees issue when I was the Production Manager for the TV program 3R (Respect, Relax, Respond) Season 12 back in 2006. In one of the episodes, we were telling the story of refugees in Malaysia. It was then that I became aware of the magnitude of the refugee situation in Malaysia.
We went on location to where the refugees were living in Kuala Lumpur to record their story. It was a real eye-opener for me. What we saw was a pitiful sight and it left its mark on me after that. These poor souls were housed in an old shop lot with some 30 people living together in a single unit on one floor – men, women and children, young and old. It was so cramped that at night, they were sleeping on the floors, the roof, in the bathrooms, on the balcony and practically in any space that is available.
What about food and other daily necessities, who provides for them?
They were left to fend for themselves with minimal help from Aid Agencies. To survive, the men would go out during the day in search of work. Those who do find work are often exploited because their employers know that as refugees, they are not allowed to work in Malaysia. With whatever little income they have, they still have to pay for rent, electricity and water. Sometimes they would buy food to supplement the foodstuff donated to them. The women and children would stay at home for fear of harassments from unscrupulous locals.
You mentioned CSO or Chin Student Organisation. Can you tell us more about it and what it does?
That’s right. CSO is Chin Student Organisation and it was setup in Malaysia around 2005, to look into the needs of the Chin Myanmar refugee children who are not eligible for formal education in Malaysia. I believe the original founders were former Chin university students who came to Malaysia to escape political persecution and human rights violations in their homeland.
UNHCR actually covers CSO in Malaysia and the organisation has its own chairman and executive committee to oversee the educational needs of the Chin ethnic group. Several churches are also involved in the CSO and their members donate money to help pay for rent and utilities.
So you were involved with the CSO activities from the very beginning?
Not really. I started by volunteering at the CSO Kajang Centre. That was in 2010. There were already several larger centres that were adequately staffed and well managed, and I wanted to work with a more manageable group that is the least helped. That’s why I chose the Kajang centre, it has only 10 kids. My friend and I were there for about 2 years teaching these children Basic English, Arts and Crafts, until one day the principal had to leave because he was granted citizenship in Norway under the UNHCR refugee resettlement program.
After Kajang, we started volunteering at the CSO Sentul Centre which is another one of the least helped groups. We are entering our 6th year now and we teach English, Arts and Crafts.
It is impossible not to get emotionally attached to those kids there. After 5 years, you develop some kind of a personal bond with them. The children will eventually be placed in different countries that grant them citizenship. Saying goodbye is always painful but you know it is a chance for a better life for them in a new country and you really want this for them. Those children who are smart, vocal and speak good English get picked first, sometimes with their whole families, to be placed under the UNHCR-assisted resettlement program.
That is why it is important for them to learn the English language and be sufficiently proficient in it, and knowing this is the biggest motivation for me.
Of the many children you have helped, was there any particular child whose story touched you the most?
Every refugee child has a painful story to tell but there was this young lady whose story gives me the inspiration to help these children gain a good foundation in English.
She was a 20 year old Chin girl who spoke good English. I guess because she came from a family who owned ruby mines in Myanmar, her family could afford her a formal education because of their wealth. When the political persecution began, it became too dangerous for her to remain in her country. Her parents have to send her off immediately when they knew the government people were coming for them. She literally escaped with only the clothes on her back. After reaching here she was placed with a refugee group, and because of her good command of English, she was able to liaise between the authorities and her people. Eventually she was offered a job as a translator with UNHCR.
If you could imagine yourself coming from a very wealthy family with all the luxuries money can buy and then one day, because of political persecution you have to leave everything behind to escape with your life. You have nothing except the clothes you are wearing and you are alone in the company of strangers, together heading into an uncertain future. Such was what she went through. The fear, anxiety and heartache must be unbearable. As it turned out, she was one of the lucky few.
As a filmmaker, if you were given a big budget opportunity to make a film on what you are doing, what would your project be?
If I had a budget to produce such a film that will not suffer serious censorship, would be a better question. If that were the case, I would make a film about the plight of the disadvantaged communities of our society; to bring awareness of their dire situation and focusing on true events.
Sadly, we cannot fully depend on corporations and the government because they can only do so much. Real life stories about Orang Asli, the refugees, the urban poor and homeless, the old folks left behind in homes, if properly told without censorship can inspire the audience to act with compassion. I would love for my films to inspire the public, especially the younger audience, into giving back and to assist the less fortunate get back on their feet with dignity.
Before we end, do you have any words of inspiration for your younger audience?
Kids nowadays spend too much time on gadget-staring activities, and are sadly very disconnected with the real world. They’ve lost the in-person face-to-face communications, and social skills. They have become techno-zombies. When we lose touch with our social skills, we will also lose touch with the humanity within us that makes us all uniquely human.
If my words can inspire the younger generation, I would say this: When you find yourself constantly glued to your mobile device scrolling over posts and comments, uploading selfies like an addict or watching online videos for hours on end, ask yourself this: “How much is this contributing to developing a better me? Is it adding value to my Life’s experience? Am I truly living my Life? Get out there, Do it. Not watch it.”
One of the ways to become a better person is to bring value to other people’s lives, which in turn will bring value to yours. The more you add value to others, the better a person you become. You don’t have to do great things immediately but you can begin with baby steps, perhaps by noticing the needy in your neighbourhood. Then, when you are ready, get involved in social or community volunteering work.
As we bid goodbye for the day, promising to “do this more often”, I can’t help but feel privileged to count wonderful souls like Gwo Yunn as my friends. Sometimes, it is people like her that inspire me to inspire others to help transform the lives of the less fortunate, and perhaps take baby steps to help make the world a better place for all.
Gwo Yunn has since moved on to her next movie project. Those of you who would like to follow her film making exploits, musings and ramblings, may find her page on Facebook. Just search for “OMG Films”.
The Genusix Project
All Photos courtesy of Gwo Yunn