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FEATURE STORY March 4, 2019

Thinking Equal in Malaysia: Deborah’s Path to Founding a Refugee School


On International Women’s Day 2019, we are sharing stories of women doing inspiring work across East Asia and Pacific. Whether in the business world, advocacy, media or countless other sectors, their contributions highlight the transformative power of women in the region. Deborah Priya Henry co-founded Fugee School in Malaysia, which caters to refugee children.

Tell us about yourself.

I am someone who has always imagined and dreamed about being a force for good. I used to think what inspired me had to be something very big or profound but now I know it’s always the little things that matter most. Many people may know me as Miss Universe Malaysia 2011 but nowadays, I consider myself more as an activist pursuing my work with the refugee community.

In 2009, I co-founded the Fugee School with my partners Shikeen Halibullah and Shafie Mohamed.

Their focuses were on human rights advocacy and sustainable development with a long-term goal to eradicate poverty. Together, we are on a mission to see that no child gets left behind. The school began with 60 children from the refugee community. Since then we have grown to accommodate 160 children from countries like Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and Palestine. Since Fugee School began 10 years ago, we have been able to witness the transformation of our students by providing them access to knowledge and empowering them with life-skills that build their self-worth and confidence.

What inspires you to get up in the morning? What drives you?

Though I think we all have days we much rather not get out of bed, I am a morning person.

I love being up early, starting the day with yoga and meditation – this helps me have the focus I need to get the most out of my day.

Only recently did I come to fully experience the saying “if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life”, I struggled for many years trying to figure out my career path. I’ve tried to do many other things however have always gravitated back to non-profit related work. It gives me the greatest fulfilment and happiness and I never feel too tired to get going. What makes all the hard work easy is knowing that it adds so much value to someone’s life and has the capacity to become a force for good.

What set you on this path?

I grew up in a family where we often had healthy but sometimes fiery debates about world issues and politics. We were always encouraged to care about how others lived and to have an opinion on matters. I grew up feeling like I had a voice and that it is okay to be heard - and I think this is an important value for someone to have. My family was also largely involved in charity work which led me to see things through the lens of humanity. If someone out there needs some help, why not just help them? It’s the humane thing to do. At age 16 I realized, I was very passionate about justice, or rather injustice. This imbued in me a passion to fight for those marginalized and forgotten.

The idea for Fugee School came about when I was hosting an in-house documentary for UNHCR in 2008. During this time I had the opportunity to meet a Somalian refugee family living in Kuala Lumpur. When I first met them, I didn’t just see a family, I saw the effects of having no education, no hope, and no support. What struck me was that we were not more than 20 minutes away from the city’s glistening twin towers but here was this family with four siblings who were unable to read or write, and were very shut down due to the hardship they had experienced. I knew it was my turn to step forward and do the right thing. There was no grand plan of a non-profit, I was a young 23-year-old and I simply believed that every child has the right to go to school and I was determined to do whatever I could to make that a reality.

What advice do you have for young women who want to take a similar path?

The magic begins when passion meets purpose.  I genuinely believe that it is important and necessary for every human to do something good for another. Make it a part of your DNA, your families’ DNA, make it a habit. If you can’t run or jump, walk. What is important is you are taking a step, no matter how big or small, go forward. Travel as much as you can. Experience the world.

Do you have a favourite quote or saying?

“Education is the greatest weapon which you can use to change the world.” - Nelson Mandela

What are the biggest issues in Malaysia right now and how can they be addressed?

Economic empowerment is a big concern. The cost of living is affecting a lot of people who earn just about enough to get along – some fall through the cracks as their situation resides dangerously on the edge of poverty. Looking back in history, it has shown us time and time again that a hungry man is an angry man – if people cannot put food on the table and provide for their families, this will eventually lead to unhappiness and unrest in society.

I am also concerned about the quality of education and upbringing of our children. What we give our children determines the type of society we live in. We need to teach our children to speak up, stand up and step forward, not to stay silent, sit down and step back. We need to trust in and embolden our teachers, and encourage parents to educate, inform and create critical thinkers amongst our young ones. Only then can we can effectively confront pervasive issues that we face as a society such as child marriage, baby dumping, the treatment of refugees and the stateless, and racism and discrimination. We need a re-education of the heart and mind.

I believe Malaysians need to walk the talk. What we demand of our leaders, we must first ask of it from ourselves.

Where do you see Malaysia in 25 years?

I want to imagine a truly happy people living in a prosperous and peaceful Malaysia.

Malaysia has shown the world what a peaceful democracy is. The general elections in 2018 saw an unprecedented change in government – the first ever for the country. It was a national reset and this golden opportunity has reenergized our hopes for a better nation in the coming years. Many of us stood up and made our voices heard. I really hope every Malaysian realizes this and is able to use that power wisely for the benefit of all.

If our new government can take the leadership and successfully harness the full potential of all Malaysians, we can be a force for good. It could bring about positive and transformational changes to some of our key goals as a nation in innovation and technology.

What change would you like to see that could bring greater equality in Malaysia?

Policies to promote equality must look towards being more targeted to ensure that the people who need it most can benefit from it. We must shift our approach towards a needs-based one. I also believe unless we successfully move away from politics defined by racial lines, we will never be able to reach our nations’ full potential and set a strong foundation for generations to come. We need less politics and better governance for all Malaysians.

If you could use one word to describe women in East Asia Pacific what would it be?

Women are breaking all the labels put upon and defining who they want to be, so I am not about to pick a word! 


The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group and its employees.