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Sep 9, 2021
Michelle Liu

5 Lessons Learned from Working at Refuge for the Refugees


In the face of this relentless pandemic, Malaysians far and wide have proven themselves to be resilient, resourceful and most of all, generous in supporting those in need. Truth is, the pleas for help are growing louder, the needs on ground are more dire.

Why volunteer? I, like my now-colleagues at Refuge for the Refugees (RFTR), wanted to act and contribute in some way: show solidarity, make use of our resources and give back, and perhaps secretly — to be part of something bigger than ourselves. While I’m still learning a lot as an intern (yes, you can still intern in your late 20s), there’s one thing that was immediately obvious at the heart of this organization: above all, give with love and respect. 

Here’s 5 important lessons we, as a team, have learned in our short time working for Refuge for the Refugees.

#1 Food aid is more than delivering necessities — it’s also about giving hope and joy.
Jenn Low crowdsourced handwritten notes to accompany the “Happy Bags”.

Feeding families and individuals in need is really, only part of the battle. As the burden of extended lockdowns and a pandemic drags on, we’ve realized that aid isn’t just about making sure someone doesn’t go hungry. With mental health on the decline and suicide cases rising in our country, it’s just as important that people feel cared for. As Heidy puts it, “It’s making sure that our food pack says - I see you, I hear you, and you’re not alone.” Thanks to the Happy Bags Project, an initiative by Jenn Low (founder of Wanderlust + Co), the team distributed bags filled with surprises and treats to bring a little joy to children and families. While we still have a long way to go, this is a start to humanizing giving “aid”. 

#2 Collaborate, involve and listen to the needs of refugees and community leaders. 
Heidy in discussion with a pastor. Source: Annice Lyn.

Good intentions can be misguided if we don’t collaborate with the very people we’re trying to support. Heidy and Hilda (RFTR’s Project Coordinator) work closely with the refugee communities, so that together, we pave the way for sustainable solutions and opportunities for the people we serve. Contrary to xenophobic rhetoric, refugees don’t want handouts - they’re just like us, and deserve agency and power in their life.

#3 Advocate for what you believe in - online or offline!
Team meetings: I’ve never met some of them personally, so I’m not too sure if I’m being catfished.

We can all do something, even if it’s online! Some of our team members, Mark, Zac and Charissa aren’t based in Kuala Lumpur, but have chosen to use their skills and resources to contribute to the cause.

#4 Representation matters: how we affect refugee narratives.
Respectful storytelling: Delivering oxygen tanks to a refugee couple who have been helping COVID-19 positive patients in their building. Source: Annice Lyn.

How we portray refugees’ stories matter, just as much as what we do, and why we do it — this is what guides our communications team in whatever we put out. Whether it is a photograph, caption, informative post or even just having a discussion, we hold ourselves accountable to articulate and represent refugees in a dignified, educational way.

It has been a journey of unlearning: there are baseless, xenophobic accusations of the refugee communities in our headlines, or misconceptions that refugees are passive members of society only on the receiving end of donations that dominate our social media. It’s time we shift the narrative, and shine the light on more perspectives, stories and personalities — and you can be part of the solution!

#5 #KitaJagaKita: What it means to be Malaysian.
COVID-19 Relief Response Team: Volunteers form a human chain to pack food as efficiently as possible.

Since last year, volunteers of all races, ages and backgrounds have shown up every week to help pack and distribute food to those severely impacted by the pandemic. As Darren, one of our volunteers, puts it, “it’s reminded me of what makes a Malaysian - uniting against a common struggle, and to help others in their time of need.” None of it would be possible without the help of the public, donations and companies who stepped up their efforts to work with our COVID-19 relief response team. One of which being RIUH 4 Rakyat, which supported local brands and creatives to raise funds for charities!


I hope this was helpful, and that you’ll continue to follow us on our journey! Find us on Instagram, Facebook or read more about us here.