Rahena and Anis: A child learns to communicate

“My 11-year-old son has never been taught how to use sign language to communicate.”

Rahena wanted a normal life for her son Anis — something that she never had growing up as a Rohingya refugee in Malaysia. When she was 2 years old her family fled Myanmar where Rohingya were, and still are, widely persecuted. In Malaysia, when her father passed away, 14-year old Rahena was married off as a child bride. She gave birth to six children. Anis, the youngest, was born deaf.

She tried the United Nations (UN) school for refugees, but they couldn’t serve children with special needs. She tried a UN-provided hearing aid but it was uncomfortable and Anis kept pulling it out.

As a refugee she had few options; for her son’s special needs, even fewer. “I am worried for my son, he is deaf, if my husband and I are no longer around, who is going to take care of him, he has to learn to take care of himself, no one will take care of him… Sometimes he makes loud humming noises because he doesn’t understand his surroundings and he feels frustrated because he can’t communicate.”

One day she attended an educational performance by the Rohingya Women’s Theatre, an art empowerment group launched by Asylum Access Malaysia (AAM) and partner organizations. There Rohingya refugees tell their stories through performance and acting, portraying issues like police corruption; employment disputes; gender based violence; arrest and detention; access to health; access to education and employment opportunities; and access to financial services.

Rahena felt emboldened by a scene on access to education: “I saw the Education scene, and the actors were silent and were using their hands to gesture to attend the school, it reminded me of my son.”

She approached AAM’s team to ask about schools that could cater to Anis’s special needs. AAM staff organized a tour of the Society of Interpreters for the Deaf (SID), a local vocational school for the hearing impaired. Rose, the caretaker of SID showed Rahena and Anis around the school, the classrooms and the space where students would learn how to bake cookies and bread as part of their vocational training.

While the school typically accommodates Malaysian deaf children, not Rohingya, they made an exception for Anis. Anis quickly made friends. For the first time in his life he was meeting other children like him, and the children were curious as they learned for the first time what a refugee was.

Overwhelmed, Rahena began to cry, “I am so happy to see that my son will be able to learn how to communicate properly…Now I know he will learn to communicate and that he will also learn vocational skills so that he can be independent, earn a living and take care of himself in the future.”

As they left the school, Anis and Rahena communicated in their own language. Using her hands, Rahena counted down the days until Monday. Monday was when he would officially begin classes, where he would learn, for the first time, how to communicate with his new friends and teachers.

With a big smile on his face, Anis gave his mother a thumbs up.

To protect the privacy of our refugee partners, photographs and names have been changed in this story.