Later in the evening, on a Tuesday, when the fasting for the day had ended and people were returning to their homes after sharing a meal organized at a hall outside the madrasah, a group of children stood together outside one of the smaller rooms, waiting for their turn to go in. They were getting ready to attend their evening Malay and Arabic learning session, thought by a couple of local school teachers who did extra tutoring at night in the community. The children, mostly boys and girls aged between 6-11, wore the customary Muslim attire – boys in baju melayu, and the girls in full hijab. Most of the children were coming from the Rohingya community in the nearby area, but they introduced themselves with distinctly local Malay names – “Achip”, “Mat”,”Sharom”, “Siti”, etc. My presence there was a little discomforting – the surau (madrasah) was almost exclusively Malay and Rohingya, and there were no other person of Indian ethnicity there, though the people were welcoming and largely untroubled by my being there. I had been invited by one of the local chiefs anyway, who introduced me as a the ‘profesor’ who writes books.
I had expressed my interest in the Rohingya children who were learning Malay and Arabic at the learning center set up by the surau, and if it would be possible to observe, in return to making a charitable donation to the community. One of the teachers had asked if I might even be able to talk to the children to tell them about studying hard and the benefits of pursuing a good education, stating that the children, who were mostly from very poor families, really needed motivation and examples. One of the teachers, an elderly Malay man who taught at a nearby local primary school, repeatedly explained that the children were very bright and enthusiastic, but needed ‘bantuan’ (assistance, mentorship, guidance). They needed books and reading material, and most of all they needed to make more time for learning – a problem since many of them would also be helping their families at work.
The classroom was large – there were at least 30 children in the front of the hall, sitting close to one another, many sharing the same books that were kept at the surau. The Arabic lessons were first, followed by the Malay, which were more conversational and oriented towards helping the children learn phrases, responses and commonly used words. The teachers were firm, strict, and commanded the children’s attention fully – it reminded me a lot of my own time as a student at a public Malay-medium primary school, where classrooms could be intimidating and highly regimented spaces. The students were obedient, responsive to the teacher’s commands and instruction. They would repeat words and phrases when asked to, in unison and almost choir-like. They were being taught phrases and words in Malay for neighbors and friends – salutations, greetings, and inquiring about daily well-being. It was clear that most of the children were intimidated enough by the teacher to not be talking or not paying attention – the teacher kept a thin wooden ruler in his right hand, a reminder of swift punishment for indiscipline.
Towards the end of the session, the teacher called upon two of the older students, who stood and walked to the front of the class and recited lines in Arabic. They then collectively thanked the teacher and dispersed. The teacher, ‘Cikgu’ (Teacher) Ramli, invited me for a cup of teh nearby, and asked me for my thoughts about the class. I thanked him profusely for allowing me to visit, for which he seemed abashed, and politely said that he was humbled that I would think about visiting the classroom. Cikgu Ramli is amiable, and enjoys joking about most things, though he does get animated when talking about the issues facing Muslims in different parts of the world – he asks me if I’d done work on Palestinians, in addition to the Rohingya, and expresses his anger that the Malaysian state isn’t doing enough to help fellow Muslims who are suffering in other parts of the world. Like many others, he is cautiously optimistic about the new government, having felt that the previous political parties cared very little about the rakyat (people) and only about expanding their wealth.
Our conversation was not the most focused, but it was pleasant and insightful regardless. Cikgu Ramli had a very strong interest in what was happening to Muslims around the world – he asks if there was a large community in New York, and wanted to know if the US was really as bad to Muslims as it is shown on the news, and if the hatred that Trump has shown is reflective of the actual people there. We talk about communities and activism for a while, and the conversation then turns, almost inevitably, to Mohamad Salah. The Egyptian soccer star who we both agree has been doing more for uniting people around the world, and positing one of the most positive images of a Muslim around. He says he uses Mo Salah as a frequent example and role model in his classes, particularly with young impressionable children, because he knows how easily some of the more vulnerable youth become attracted by the lures of violent fundamentalism and criminality.
“Mo is great… children and older people love him. He is about peace and generosity, and bringing people together (muhibah). And he’s someone who works hard to become a respected athlete. What better example could we have wanted for a good Muslim? On top of that, he is a good husband and father. And bola (soccer) is popular among the young, many of these boys, even the Rohingnya kids, enjoy watching and playing soccer, and they all know his name. They all have someone they can look up to and follow – they don’t need to see the TV and the only images of Muslims they see are terrorists or ISIS or Taliban… They can see Mo.”
Cikgu Ramli is single, unusual for a man of his age. He said that as a teacher, he always found meaning in teaching young children, and as the youngest in his family, there was no pressure on him to marry and have children as he had plenty of nephews and nieces, and grand-nephews and grand-nieces. He devotes his time to the school and the additional tutoring he does in the evenings, and being able to help the Rohingya community is something he regards as ‘tanggungjawab bersama ummah’ (shared responsibility of the ummah). I suggest to him that it is a shared responsibility for everyone as well, to which he smiles warmly, and puts a hand on my shoulder.
“There are so many of them here now… so many children and elderly as well. All coming here without homes and places to go to. So many come here split from their families. It’s so easy for the rest of us to forget and pretend they cannot be helped, but as a Muslim, that’s a fundamental betrayal (“khianat“). It doesn’t matter where they come from, or what their nationality is. They are our fellow Muslims. So much of the world hates Muslims, so if Muslims hate fellow Muslims and turn a blind eye to suffering, then we might as well stop calling ourselves Muslims. It shouldn’t matter if they are Rohingya or Palestinian… suffering is suffering and there’s no excuse for neglecting one or the other.”
“I had an old friend, from back in 1996 or 1997, who was Rohingya, and used to live in Cheras when I taught at a school there. He was a security guard at the school, and we would always talk in the mornings, when I would bring him teh bungkus (tea in a plastic bag), and I still remember him telling me stories of his children back home, how he wanted them to do well in school and become successful. When I see many of the Rohingya children today, who come to class, I always think of his stories of his children. That’s part of the problem with a lot of our people (Malaysians), we think of the Rohingya as if they are outcasts, unwanted burdens. We don’t see them as people, with hopes and dreams, with little children. It’s different when you actually know them and their families, then it’s not that easy to disregard or ignore them. That’s why most of the Malay communities, the ones who live with or close to the Rohingya, are much more aware and understanding, at least those who were taught how to be good Muslims. Everyone else mostly don’t want anything to do with them. They are seen as jahil (stupid, ignorant) or sisa (waste).”
We talk about the children and the evening classes he teaches. Cikgu Ramli says that he has been tutoring Malay to the children for almost 8 years, though he had never had the large numbers that he did until more recently since 2015, when the community grew larger almost overnight. He had been caught by surprise by the number of new families that asked to have their children attend the Malay classes, in the hopes that they would be able to better assimilate into the local community. The parents and families would reach out to elders, indicating they had young children who needed schooling but lacked basic language skills. For most of the refugees, getting into public schools were near impossible, so they had to rely heavily upon private lessons and tutoring, such as the ones organized near the surau.
“The good thing is that this is an older Malay community, where a lot of the families are now well-to-do and contribute a lot to the surau. So there’s resources for providing for the poorer community. It is good that we can do this without asking for payment or anything from the poor, which is how it should be anyway.”
“The children are good, they are very obedient, and they show a lot of love for learning. They are rarely kurang ajar (rude) or lazy… sometimes, they get discouraged or they feel like they are struggling, but if you are clear with them, and repeat things, they will learn well. I teach Malay, Chinese, Indian children all the time, and with these Rohingya children, I don’t think they are in any way worse or less capable. They can be just as pandai (bright). The only thing separating them, is they are nasib kurang baik (less fortunate) to be born in that country.” It was then I realized that Cikgu Ramli never uses the word Burmese or Myanmarese, and rarely refers to the country by name.