Edwina Tan, Volunteer


I have worked with refugees since September 2012. I was once assigned to a school with an 18 year old Headmaster. And, I have also worked with young teenage children, teaching English, Maths and Science.

I don’t think I have ever had such a humbling experience as entering a refugee schoolroom for the first time. The surrounding was shocking; there were no facilities and very few resources, yet orderly lessons were being conducted by courageous young Myanmar teenagers to help youngsters who have no official access to education in this country. It really made an impact on me.

One of the experiences I will never forget is when the father of one of our pupils became very ill with TB, which is common among the Myanmar refugees. As his mother had just delivered a new baby, neither parents had a job nor did the family have income. Our teenage head and another very young teacher had visited and begged the volunteers to help in some way.

Without really knowing what one could do, because of the language problems, as there are so many dialects even within the Chin community, I accompanied these 2 young teachers to the family’s home in a dingy apartment block near the school. The poor father looked dreadfully ill, though he was only young, and had huge swellings both sides of his neck. The colour if his face was dreadful. The young woman and her tiny baby girl were also there.

After a long enquiry with struggles in translation we understood that there was a miscommunication about his medical treatment at the local hospital, and he had come home. He looked very much as though he should be in hospital and it transpired he had an outpatient appointment later that week.

The 3 of us managed to persuade him that he really needed to go back and I took him and the wife and baby to the infectious diseases clinic on the morning in my car as there was no bus service. With no current income they had no money for a taxi fare. I was able to see the doctor with them and I am relieved to say he was persuaded to stay in. We got him settled into the ward, I helped his wife fetch his personal belongings and then took her home. I felt very keenly how difficult it must be for a person like this to stay in a big hospital where you understand little of what is going on.

I’m relieved to say he did improve and was well enough to return home after a week. His TB is no longer infectious now but he remains unemployed as no one will give him a job. Unfortunately the visual remains of extra-pulmonary TB , swellings in the neck, last for quite a long time even when the disease is under control, but this is not understood by the average Malaysian employer  of refugees – usually a building contractor.

I wish I could do more to help. It is dreadfully frustrating at times, but even if you can’t help them fix their lives as much as they would wish, the refugees do so much  and appreciate others coming alongside to try to give them a hand.


Name: Edwina Tan

Nationality: English

1 family torn apart by war is too many

Learn more about our work with refugees at UNHCR.org