We embrace those at the peripheries

“Go out into the streets of every existential periphery in order to heal wounds and to seek out the straying, without prejudice or fear, without proselytising, but ready to widen her (the Church’s) tent to embrace everyone.

Sep 25, 2021

At the NTA Schools for Refugee Children, the young ones are accorded an opportunity to education and a sense of normalcy just like other children.


“Go out into the streets of every existential periphery in order to heal wounds and to seek out the straying, without prejudice or fear, without proselytising, but ready to widen her (the Church’s) tent to embrace everyone. Among those dwelling in those existential peripheries, we find many migrants and refugees, displaced persons and victims of trafficking, to whom the Lord wants his love to be manifested and his salvation preached.” (Pope Francis, Message on 107th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2021)

This call by Pope Francis resonates loud and clear for my team and I who have been running various projects with refugees for the last decade. It all started when we witnessed the heartwrenching scene of a refugee mother who was walking from house to house asking if anyone would be willing to teach her children the alphabet in exchange for the little money she was able to scrape together.

It was by looking into her eyes and listening to her story that we learnt of the plight of the Rohingya people and what it meant to be a refugee.

It was by seeing her immense love for her children that we knew for certain that no mother would risk putting their child on a boat to cross treacherous seas if their land was safer. It was in teaching her children that we learnt exactly what they were running away from and why they can never go “home”.

With each experience, our hearts broke a little more and we soon came to the realisation that the only difference between us and them is simply our country of birth - a decision none of us had anything to do with. We did not get to choose which country we were born in any more than they did. Yet, it is this difference that has accorded us with everything we have since gained and accumulated, and it is this difference that has left them lost, with nothing to call their own.

By the time the pandemic hit in 2020, we were caring for and educating over 1000 children through our NTA Schools for Refugee Children. Over the last 10 years, our school had grown from a place of learning into wholesome, nourishing grounds where children learn, eat and play in safety and comfort. A place where a refugee child can simply be a child. A place that they can call their own. Sadly, due to the lockdowns, many refugees have lost the little they had while being discriminated against and blamed for spreading the virus. Many went into hiding for fear of being harmed, while having little to no access to their basic needs. Our hearts are filled with pain as we continue to be reminded that these communities which have already endured so much just to survive need to endure still more in hopes that they survive this pandemic. By Sherril Netto

Sherril is the Co-Founder of New Thessalonian Apostolate (NTA), a homegrown Catholic missionary organisation that runs various humanitarian programmes focused on bringing relief and access to basic needs to non-central parts of Malaysia. She is also a Director for NTA Schools for Refugee Children which opened its doors in 2012.

Migrants and refugees are human too
Migrants and refugees – what a despised category of people at this time of pandemic! They are blamed for the blooming of new COVID-19 clusters. They are sneered at in the vaccine centres. They are not welcomed in places of worship. They are the first to be laid off during economic downturns. They turn illegal overnight due to backlog of work pass renewals. They are not entitled to government assistance during the lockdown, and so on and so forth. We can continue the litany of marginalisation that these people are experiencing.

Erlina could only weep silently after her husband passed away due to liver complications. She and her three small children are staying in the small hut in which her late husband’s employer temporarily allowed them shelter. They came from Flores and have spent the last four years actively involved in church. Without a husband to protect and a father to provide food, the family has a bleak future in a foreign land. The pandemic is making life more difficult. Harun is married to a local woman and has five young children. He worked as a tourist bus driver since 2014. He was laid off with the enforcement of the MCO and his small savings are draining fast. His wife is sickly after contracting tuberculosis. Their children cannot afford online schooling as Harun has only one mobile phone. He is thinking of taking the family back to the Philippines but is forced to stay put because all borders are closed.

Marinus’ work pass expired at the end of 2020. Someone promised to help him renew it through dubious means. After paying a huge sum, that was the last he heard from the so-called agent. Marinus is now in a quandary – in debt and illegal in a country where he has worked for the past three years. He dares not move outside for fear of being arrested. One of his countrymen who is sharing his quarters is infected with COVID-19 and, as an illegal too, dared not go for vaccination.

Stories like these are common among the two to three million migrant workers in our nation. Some may be even more drastic and pitiful, especially among the undocumented, as they are more vulnerable to circumstances around them.

When we allow ourselves to enter into their life stories, they become visible to us as normal human beings who have a life to live, a family to care for, a job to do and a future to look forward to. They too have been impacted negatively by the pandemic. Yet, unlike the locals, they are marginalised, exploited and ghettoed by the prevalence of a xenophobic mentality.

Like the lepers in the Gospels, they must hide and run, and make themselves invisible from the rest of the society. But they are not, and should not, be faceless! They stand tall in our midst as our national economy depends largely on them in the 3D sector – dangerous, dirty, and difficult jobs. They should not be treated as “milking cows” or “ATM machines” by corrupt officials and unscrupulous employers, or be victims of improper policies.

For a start, if we agree that migrants and refugees are human (and they are!), their human dignity and rights should be respected like that of the rest of the population. They must not be treated merely as factors of production without souls.

Secondly, industry owners should be held responsible for the “illegality” of their workers. The authorities should go after employers who take advantage of the pandemic and let the documents of their workers lapse.

Thirdly, undocumented migrants should be assured safe passage to vaccination centres, and clear guidelines should be forthcoming for migrants who are COVID-19 positive.

And last but not least, cases of migrants who are laid off and cashless, and would like to return to their home countries, should be handled bilaterally with their home countries urgently, as a day delayed is a day decayed.

COVID-19 does not differentiate between people based on nationality and social status. As long as the welfare and human rights of migrant workers are not included in the national recovery plan, it is doubtful that we will be able to resume economic normalcy in the near future. The moral leadership of the nation is at stake. — By Dominic Lim (Archdiocesan Commission for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants, Kota Kinabalu)

                                                      The voices, often unheard

The Church has been celebrating World Day of Migrants and Refugees since 1914. We are invited to pray for this group of people who face challenges and vulnerabilities and consider how we can respond better to their plight. The HERALD team spoke to some of the migrants and refugees to hear their stories.

I have been in Malaysia for nearly 20 years now and have worked in different states, sometimes with a legal work permit, and sometimes without. I got married in 2004 and have a son who is now 14 years old. When I stayed near the town, I was able to go regularly to church on Sundays. I do not think my son can adapt to the schools in Malaysia. Our culture is so different. That is why my wife and son balik kampong so that he can go to school there. At least here, I can work and earn and send home some money. I have yet to settle all my debts incurred in coming here. I hope to continue working here until I see my son graduate with a degree. Then I will return to Indonesia and go back to farming. — Rudy, Indonesian, Sawmill worker

Presently I do not have a work permit. My boss applied for renewal and I am told the papers are still with Immigration. I sometimes cannot sleep because I am not sure if there will be raids in the middle of the night. We have good accommodation here. But we sometimes sleep inside the plantation area, in some place in the midst of the oil palm trees, we just put up tents and sleep there. There is no peaceful sleep. — Yosef, Indonesian, Plantation worker

I am 38 years old. I got my UN card about 10 years ago. Since then, I have been able to work and earn. My boss pays me wages as agreed. Even during the pandemic, I have been lucky since he still takes care of all my needs. I stay in a shophouse with other workers. I have a room for myself. My wife and three children are still back home. I have not been able to visit them all these years. I hope to receive news of my resettlement to another country as soon as possible. Then I can be together with my family once again. — Rohan, Sri Lankan, Refugee, Restaurant worker

Without a work permit, things can be difficult, especially when we are in need of medical assistance. If we have to be hospitalised, our admission fee is very high, and the boss won’t pay for it. Or, it will be considered as a loan and will be deducted from our wages. We can receive treatment at hospital but after that, the authorities will be called and we will be detained and then sent back home. So, we resort to ‘ubat kampung’, but this is not always possible. If we go to private clinics, some of them charge fees higher than those for the locals. — Mohammed, Bangladeshi, Sawmill worker

Without a work permit, our lives are very difficult. Very often, we hear of immigration raids and we quickly run into the jungle area. We fear going to town, even to buy provisions and foodstuffs. We usually ask some of the locals and co-workers to buy for us. They are good and kind, very helpful and understand our plight. We live in constant fear of the authorities. If we go to town, we must take a “teksi sapu” which can be costly. Then, even in town, we fear being caught and detained. Sometimes we have to deal with the police. Or if taken to the Balai, we have to call our friends to assist us so that we may be freed. It is not our fault that we do not have our papers. We only stay within the factory premises. Sometimes I think it is like a prison. — Rizky, Indonesian, Factory worker

As I do not have a work permit, I fear that I will not be paid. We work so hard daily, then at the end of the month, we cannot get our pay. If the boss does not want to pay us, we cannot do anything. So far things are alright. If not, we just leave and go to another factory. We may still face the same situation again. We only hope the employer will be fair to us. — Duong, Vietnamese, Factory worker

Five of us sleep in one small container. Ventilation is not very good. In this pandemic, we fear that if one of us gets infected, all of us will be affected. We sleep side by side. The mats are next to each other. Our feet are almost touching the feet of those sleeping near us. Some others built their own house from wood given to them by the boss. It is all discarded wood. When some of them came here, they had to build their own house, not knowing how to do it. Back home, we were only doing farming or fishing, and suddenly we became house builders. — Kyaw, Myanmarese, Factory Worker

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Eddy W.
We embrace those at the peripheries but we leave the unvaccinated as far from the door of the Church as possible, without Mass and the Sacraments.