Women We Love 2024: Deborah Henry On How The Fugee School Looks Beyond School Education and Into The Journey of Employment

The Co-founder of The Fugee School believes that when it comes to the refugee welfare sector, it all comes down to having a clear vision for the end result.
text by Daween Maan

Deborah Henry, Co-founder of The Fugee School

Deborah Henry is no stranger to overcoming cynicism. Having spent fifteen years moving people past their own cynicism around child refugee education, you could say she’s quite an expert at it. But first, she had to overcome her own.

“I started this in my twenties with some university friends, and we weren’t sure if it was going to last very long,” she candidly admits on the founding of Fugee School and its parent non- profit organisation Fugee in 2009. “We knew education is important, so we wanted to do it right, but I was also juggling many other parts of my career. So, I went through phases.”

Although she still does the occasional corporate emceeing, and hosting and even has a new podcast coming out, within a few years of the organisation’s founding Deborah became more involved and has seen Fugee School becoming a major player in their education space.

“In the past five years, we’ve been looking at growth, looking into sustainability, and scalability,” she says, “Yes, the nonprofit world is different from for-profit businesses, but you still have to have a very business mindset. It’s easy to just think you’re doing good, and pat yourself on the back, but how are you measuring your impact? How do you be sustainable? These things have to be in the picture,” she says.

The Fugee School currently has over two hundred refugee students from kindergarten to high school and runs the Fugee Higher Education Scholarship programme that offers deserving students the opportunity to continue their education in universities. The programme currently has over thirty students completing their higher education. But it was only a few years ago, during the Covid-19 pandemic that things were looking bleak, not only for the school’s finances but also for their student’s education.

“I think the pandemic exposed a lot of gaps in our education space across the world,” Deborah concedes. “We talk about education equity, that every child, no matter what situation they are in, should have access to a quality education but that wasn’t the case. There was a big realisation of the gap between the privileged and under-privileged: the access to the right tools, a good internet, supportive family, a conducive home environment, and the less you had, the harder it was.”

“And of course, the refugee children fall into the bottom category. So, there were a lot of challenges, but we knew we needed to make changes, not only for the pandemic but for the future as a whole.”

Deborah Henry, Co-founder of The Fugee School

These changes as Deborah describes included the digitising of whole lessons and syllabuses, online classes and using other tools to maintain a meaningful and holistic education system.

“We realised that this was the future of education, and it’s not something you can run away from. Even now when we’re back physically in school, we’ve kept a lot of that tech in the classroom so that we can build on.”

She also reflects on how the problems they faced were not only unique to them but also the larger education system.

“In Malaysia, we know a lot of children dropped out of school, even kebangsaan schools during Covid, many don’t even want to sit for SPM, so education has to change. We now know the gaps and the inequalities and inequities that exist but also the amount of opportunity and if we don’t find the motivation to change our education system then we know what’s going to happen.”

Fugee School

Beyond just their school education, Fugee also guides their students through their journey into employment, ensuring they have access to opportunities that allow them to build a future. However, they still face many hurdles and not all of them can be overcome alone.

“People care about what we do, I can’t deny that, but what we need is policy change, something that's more long term, so that we know and can act on and that’s what we’re lacking right now. There is talk of course, but you need action to follow up words.”

“Right now, we are pushing for policy change, especially access to higher education. The Ministry of Higher Education has said refugees can go to university, but the stumbling block now is the visa process, so you have to get all these different departments and legally make that happen.”

“But the positive is that in the nonprofit space, we have very bright people who are very solution-oriented, and we’re trying to work collaboratively, examine our goals and priorities, and work together to achieve them.”

Acknowledging that the nature of the organisation regularly exposes her to harrowing real- world experiences of refugees, while also having to overcome the hardships of running a non-profit, Deborah conveys that she keeps herself focused on their objective and good work.

“I’ve had my fair share of breakdowns,” she divulges before a short pause. “All of it has been a steep learning curve in how to manage the organisation. There have been months where I’m not even sure I’m going to be able to pay the bills and keep things going.”

“But then I think about these people who have lost their homes, their families and they come with nothing looking to build a life for themselves, and what we can do to help them. I think that’s what keeps me going: I am very attached to the end result of what we do – it is something I can see.”

Deborah Henry

Fugee School

However, she accepts that the non-profit sector is not without its shortcomings and identifies a need to be more data-driven over emotion-driven.

“The refugees aren’t just in KL,” she asserts, “They’re all over the country, and we need to have a way to be able to measure the work we’re doing to ensure we’re maximising our potential. Having clear data will also help with fundraising, being able to show people the benefit of our work and their contributions.”

Deborah stresses that ultimately people need to have a clear understanding of their goals in the refugee welfare sector – “We’re not looking for handouts, this isn’t about charity, it is about basic human rights. It’s important for people to know that this isn’t about taking something away from a Malaysian to give to someone else; it’s about enabling and empowering people to build their own lives, so they get to contribute back.”

“Anyone can be a refugee,” she remarks sombrely, “with the current state of the world—war, climate change—any one of us could be a refugee tomorrow.

, ,

Type keyword(s) and press Enter