It was just one of many towns that dot Malaysia’s landscape. Coffee shops with their corrugated tin roofs and drains that open out from nowhere, serving up dishes from individual stalls that stand amid the hazy, shimmering heat of a typical Malaysian afternoon.
Having followed the Rohingya refugee crisis since its peak in 2016, where it received widespread media attention covering their journey across the seas searching for a place that would take them in, I expected something more cataclysmic. But there seemed to be no trace of the refugees at all—nothing to mark the lives that they led in this town, nothing to acknowledge this current chapter of their lives.
As I stepped out of the Grab car that reached our destination, I already had to reevaluate my expectations. With the idea of coming to a learning centre for Rohingyan children, I imagined a large, sprawling compound, with space for children to run and play. In contrast, the school for Rohingya refugees requires one to make the climb up a steep set of stairs to find a school about the size of 2 classrooms in Singapore.
Nonetheless, what followed over the course of the next four days in those two small classrooms would be both humbling and transformational. And although we were not allowed to share the word of God, strangely enough, I felt that this mission trip brought me closer to God than ever before.
The Pekan Nanas Team, Claudia (writer) 3rd from the right on the couch
SURPRISED BY JOY
“Let the little children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the Kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Mark 10:14-15
In our Singaporean approach to education, children are usually made to study because of the competitive environment they are in. This often results in a dread to learn, or attend (more) classes.
To see children that were eager to learn, turned what I knew on its head. Aside from joy, this revelation also filled me with a mix of gratitude and urgency. To be so thankful for something that others around the world sometimes treat with practiced boredom and indifference means that, education is a luxury to these children.
And while this revelation filled me with thankfulness for the lot I had been blessed with in life, it also imbued within me a desperate need to share the gifts I had been given by God.
We taught them the days of the week, tomorrow and yesterday, shapes, and colours. Each time, they were eager as ever, respectfully addressing us, “Cikgu! Cikgu!”, bringing their toys to play with us. Every morning, they grabbed me by the hand and pulled me to sit beside them as we ran through the “Welcome Song” (complete with actions!) before separating into classes.
Three days passed, and we fell into a rhythm of sorts—running through lessons and reviews, playing games with them, hearing their laughter filling the classrooms. At the end of that time, I realised that I could not recall the last time I had so much fun in a classroom from the sheer, infectious, joy of learning.
Teaching in the classroom
That fourth day had introduced a slight hiccup to our routine—we had several visitors accompanied by a photographer that I later found out were the heads of the Rohingya learning centres that funded education for the refugees.
I was caught off guard when one of the ladies walked over to the group of children I was teaching and asked in Malay about their aspirations for the future. “I want to be a doctor,” one of the students responded eagerly.
Maybe it was the hope in his eyes, or the casual innocence with which he said it, but something about his pronouncement was heart-rending, and I turned away, a slight lump in my throat. I was struck by the love that God had for these children, love that I couldn’t begin to describe or to tell them about.
“You need to encourage them, so that they have something to think about when you are gone,” she said before departing. Reality told me that the odds were stacked against this boy becoming a doctor. But his powerful innocence convinced me that it was thoroughly unfair that he should be disqualified from the opportunities other kids have simply because they had the fortune to be born somewhere different.
Having fun with the children in between lessons
The only difference between that child and I was where I had been born.
It made me wonder, “So, if everything in my life is a God-given privilege and God-given talent, then, did my personal achievements and accolades truly mean anything?”
In accomplishment-obsessed Singapore, where, do these fit?
As Jesus had loved the children for their innocence, it was also their innocence that left the deepest imprint on my heart and served up the most violent epiphany of the trip: that my personal wants, and ambitions are worthless without them being channeled towards God’s glory.
Without God, I was nothing, and I was put here on earth solely for his glory.
Engaging the children outside the classroom
TIRED BUT REFRESHED
I had come on this mission trip to give, but I left feeling like I had gained much more than I had been given.
Spiritual epiphanies aside, I have been blessed with a wonderful group of missions enthusiasts to grow with. Over two-hour long devotions that often left me reeling with the depth of the discussion, and moments of fellowship at meals and late-night game sessions that helped us form bonds I am certain will last.
There was plenty of work to be done, but surrounded by willing and helpful teammates, I came out of the mission trip physically tired but spiritually and emotionally refreshed.
Would I do it again? Yes, definitely, 11/10, in a heartbeat.
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