The world and the UN have done but little to stop wars, famines and atrocities committed against religious, social and political minorities that have resulted in around 20 million refugees, but it seems all hope has not yet died, as there are people – more like angels – who keep fighting for this most elusive of the ingredients of life for the world’s most vulnerable, and, at least, in this respect are being helped by the UN. One such glimmer of hope shines in Malaysia, where a festival, founded in 2016 by Miss Mahi Ramakrishnan, under the auspices of the UNHCR and other organizations, runs from June 28 to July 1. The festival is intended to create a platform for the refugees to showcase their talents and strives to present these stateless individuals as normal people just like us, with abilities, hopes and aspirations. The festival also plays a role in building bridges between the Malaysian society and the refugee communities.
The theme of the festival for this year is Sharing a Global Responsibility. Malaysia is a host to around half a million refugees and it is vital that they are embraced as a part of society and not just as a global responsibility. It should be realized that the refugees contribute effectively to our society as artists, poets, engineers, teachers, etc.
It is very important to understand the fear that many host nations have when it comes to embracing refugees. People only fear something when they don’t understand it in its entirety. And therefore the festival has a role to play in helping Malaysians to get to know the refugees. All it takes is for one to sit down with them, have coffee (or teh tarik) and listen to them. It does not take long before one realizes that the refugees are just like any other “normal” person, with the same dreams for themselves and for their children.
There are many highlights to the festival. Some of them are mentioned below.
- The festival has grown this year and they are launching a poetry book by refugee poets. They have grouped eight of them under The Refugee Poets Society and will manage them for a year – promoting them at corporate and NGO events. Their poetry is published in the book titled From Exile with Love. The book is supported by the European Union Delegation to Malaysia.
- A Belgian award-wining photojournalist, David Verbeckt, will hold a photo exhibition from June 29 – July 1, 12pm -8pm. The exhibition charts the course of the violence against the Rohingya from Burma to Malaysia to India. This exhibition is fully sponsored by Photomedia, a professional studio in Malaysia
- They have two refugee theatres performing at the festival – one is an afghan theatre by Saleh Sepas, which is expressed in The Theatre of the Oppressed. The play is on child marriages in Afghanistan. The second theatre is put together by a group of kids from six different refugee communities and looks at their lives in Malaysia. This is underthe Same Skies, the NGO that works out of Malacca. Both plays are sponsored for by the UNHCR.
- The festival has a film premier by Malaysian filmmaker Zan Azlee, which documents his experience in the Kutupalong refugee camps in Bangladesh. And they have a debut filmmaker, J K Asher, who is launching her filmmaking career through a film titled From the Killing Fields to the Playing Fields. It shows the Rohingya refugees training hard at football in both Australia and Malaysia to join the Conifa games, which is the equivalent of the World Cup but played by stateless persons. Zan’s film is called We Are Animals.
- Another highlight is a football match between two Rohingya football clubs. The winner will receive a trophy from Charles Santiago, Klang MP and Chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) on July 1 at the closing of the festival. The arts and sports is a non-threatening way of conveying a political message. It also gives a sense of identity and self-respect to the refugees. This is important because their respective governments rob them off their dignity.
The festival hopes to play a role in recognizing and nurturing the artistic talents of the refugees. It strives to identify these refugees and to train them to become better. Let us hope that this is replicated in more places and more often as there is little hope for the world to become better soon and for these refugees to find a home, a state to call their own in the near future.