On the north-eastern coast of East Malaysia, overlooking the Sulu Sea towards the Philippines, a large community of war refugees struggle day by day for survival.
Oblivious to the hardship of life, the children of the weather-beaten villages run freely about in play while their parents look upon them with a quiet pride even as deep lines of worry etch their faces.
Here’s the situation in Sandakan, the makeshift home of peace-loving people who have fled from the ceaseless wars in the Philippines to make a simple life for themselves and their children.
A visit to these villages was made possible recently through the combined efforts of Dr Leslie Tay and his ieatishootipost.sg community, and Goducate, a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping underprivileged Asians make better lives for themselves.
Goducate empowers poor villagers around Asia by turning village mothers into teachers, teaching their children English. Efforts are also made to instill in the villagers a desire to improve their lifestyles overall.
After trekking through a vast expanse of barren land, open to scorching elements, we were first rewarded by the sight of little slippers lined up neatly outside a wooden shack even as little voices reciting the Alphabet rang out cheerily from inside.
When we made an appearance, the children got up excitedly, some shyly, and greeted us in unison in English under the direction of their teacher.
The huts in which they live are patchy and worn, providing the barest of shelter. I can’t stop wondering what life for them is like, what they think every day. Are they happy? Scared? Oblivious?
They did look kinda of happy and contented, to be honest, which makes it all the more touching.
Village #2 – Boat Village
To get to this second village, we had to trek through another wasteland before arriving at a rickety dock where small boats await to take us across to the village proper.
Boat Village is in worse condition than the first. Because of the marshy land on which the villagers have settled, flimsy wooden bridges provide walkways for the entire village. Unused to such, we had to pick our way carefully through the sparsely connected planks.
We finally arrived at the schoolhouse, which was just a square of space at one end of the village. There, the children were seated in neat rows, working on writing basic English sentences in their little exercise books.
Every so often, they would turn their heads to stare curiously at their smiling visitors.
The villagers are friendly and yet shy. Despite their living conditions, you can’t really feel sorry for them. With help from Goducate, they have a sense of purpose to strive for a better life. I think purpose is what makes life fulfilling, not just what you have around you.
So what really touched me was not how they’re suffering a life of poverty and substandard sanitation, but how love and hope has brightened their lives as they work towards a meaningful future.
Not only are the children taught English, they are also taught ambition and self-worth. Promising children are further taught how to function in civilised society so that they may one day venture out and make comfortable lives of their own.
While many villages are now being helped in this way, many more remain isolated. The number of refugees dotting the coastal landscape of Sandakan is quite staggering, numbering in the six-digit range.
After Boat Village, we went on to visit two more villages. Will continue with those tomorrow because I have too many photos of them.
Will now leave you with this beautiful poster that Leslie made.