Volunteer story: John and Susan Brinnand

With little expectation or foreknowledge, my wife, Susan, and I volunteered at the Rohingya Peace Institute (RPI) school in July 2017. The school was eight months old and operated from a rented three-roomed apartment which is also the home of the school’s founder and sole teacher, twenty-six year old Latif; his eighteen year old wife, Nur Kaidah; Fatiah, their six-month old daughter; and up to ten boarding students.

As well as preparing teaching resources, soliciting funding and promoting the school amongst the Rohingya community, Latif typically taught morning and afternoon classes six days a week for children ranging in ages from four to twelve and an adult evening class. It is no wonder he was delighted to see us and promptly announced he would take a rest from teaching and within days was suffering a heavy cold.

Suddenly, Susan and I were in charge of up to twenty-five children and a smaller than usual number of adults attending the evening classes due to increased police surveillance of refugees which just happened to coincide with a local election campaign.

Compared with Australia, Malaysia is a novice in the business of brutalizing refugees for political capital and the Malaysians are generally and genuinely compassionate toward Rohingya refugees but nevertheless, certain influential candidates sought advantage by massaging xenophobia. The Rohingya community responded by remaining indoors, especially at night.

So how did Susan and I end up here? A question I often asked myself when, from our second day, it was decided we would divide the children into two groups and I would teach (I’m using that word very loosely) those aged four to seven years i.e. those who spoke almost no English. Unlike Susan, I am not a teacher; indeed, in the 1970’s I dropped out of a one-year teaching diploma after six weeks certain that I lacked the patience to ever succeed in that profession.

In my 60’s now, I may have gained a little patience but when we contacted Lilianne Fan, the International Director of Yayasan Geutanyoe, suggesting that we might come to Malaysia and volunteer, I had in mind that I could do some renovations or build a garden while Susan got on with the teaching. In February, Lillianne was a guest speaker at conference in Sydney organized by the Refugee Council of Australia.

Although we didn’t speak with her in Sydney, she made a strong impression and, a month or so later, having returned home to Queensland and thought about it, we sent Lilianne an email and her response was enthusiastic and encouraging.

“Yes we can do this, why not?” That’s what we thought then but after a few days in a room with eight small children with whom I could barely communicate, my confidence had evaporated.

Despite persistent attempts to have the children address me by my name, the honorific, ‘teacher’, was immoveable. However, it didn’t sound like teacher but ‘eat ya’ and always in threes….’eat ya, eat ya, eat ya’, thus giving new meaning to the phrase ‘hungry for knowledge’.

And then there was the humidity. It must have been 100% and the air so heavy with damp that breathing seemed to risk pneumonia. The school apartment isn’t air-conditioned, a fact that seemed to concern no one other than Susan and me. As the days passed our routine settled but not the humidity. We would leave our air-conditioned hotel at 9am and return from morning class dripping wet around 1pm.

Excessive perspiration isn’t a condition from which I usually suffer but dashing across the hotel lobby it was my habit to smile broadly at the receptionist hoping to distract her gaze from the dark stain of damp extending from the waistband of my shorts at the back, right around the groin to the waistband at the front. The potential for embarrassment eased when I ceased wearing light coloured shorts.

We spent the afternoons in our hotel room with brief forays into the town to secure food and teaching resources. While she found the humidity oppressive, Susan didn’t drip like me. It wasn’t just the climate but the stress of not knowing what to do with my class. In the afternoons, and with admirable forbearance, Susan continued the teacher training I’d abandoned four decades earlier.

Armed with a growing assortment of things we acquired from the Eco shop – ‘anything you like for two Ringgit’ (60 Australian cents) - such as 100 spoons, 30 pegs, 6 ping pong balls, a packet of dominoes, pairs of scissors, 3 glue sticks, 8 sheets of wide brown paper and, from the hotel concierge, a stack of used magazines, we would return at 7pm for the evening class. Until my epiphany, I relied on this brightly coloured assortment to disguise the fact that I hadn’t a clue what I was doing.

“Just keep talking and have fun. If you talk, they are being immersed in English. These kids are quick and will pick it up,” Susan repeatedly advised.

That was all very well, but most of her group could already speak some English, even if their delivery was machine-like and stilted, a consequence of rote learning. I fancy myself as a bit of a singer and I commented to Susan one day that it might help to demonstrate that spoken English is quite musical. And hence my epiphany: the utility of song. With counting songs, nursery rhymes, silly songs, songs we could act out, especially the Hokey Pokey which became our magnum opus, I was in my element, we were all having fun and the children were learning English.

A six year old boy in my class had learned by rote and could recite in English the 52 body parts but it was when we sang “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” with actions, that he understood which body parts the words referred to. Epiphanies are fine but all of this singing and dancing didn’t help my perspiration problem. Occasionally Latif would appear and, with a concerned expression, re-orient the fan onto me or adjust a window.

Then came the torrid day that blunt scissors and cheap cardboard revealed my true identity - ‘the rain man’. Scissors from the Eco shop had been such a success it became a challenge to maintain the children’s interest in any other activity. Most had never used scissors before and certainly none had used them to remove pretty pictures from glossy hotel magazines.

At the beginning of every class, and frequently throughout, one boy in particular would sidle up to me wide-eyed and whispering hoarsely ‘eat ya, eat ya, eat ya’ while gesturing a cutting motion with his fingers. His manner suggested an invitation to partake in some illicit activity. He was from an especially poor family and it occurred to me that he didn’t expect the luxury of cutting and pasting to last and therefore every opportunity should be taken immediately and surreptitiously.

But I digress: the rain man. One day, the activity was to trace and cut out the body outlines of each child, stick them on the wall and then on subsequent days add a cut-out of a clothing item and a face with eyes, ears, mouth and nose. The activity began thus, “Make room children while ‘eat ya’ demonstrates”. Kneeling on the tiled floor, scissors in hand, I peered down at the canary yellow cardboard as if through a hairy telescope, for the tight circle of children’s heads were much closer to the work site than my own.

It wasn’t precision work but demanding in other ways as evidenced by the large glob of sweat that plummeted from my brow. As if from a breached dam, a minor flood followed, gushing down the telescope, onto the cheap cardboard, dispersing yellow dye in wavy patterns around a residue of my body salts. ‘Just like a saltpan nestled in desert dunes’, I mused.

Eight little heads swiveled; the hairy telescope now a ring of startled and confused expressions. Chorusing ‘eat ya, eat ya, eat ya’ one dashed to the kitchen and swiftly returned with bottled water and the remainder moved back, perhaps to see if I would faint. The scissor-obsessed boy took the pair from my hand, possibly so I wouldn’t injure myself in whatever was to follow or maybe because he saw his chance.

Clearly these children of the tropics had never seen a man leak before; perspire yes, but not like this, and I had no song ready to explain the phenomenon. Singing in the Rain, Eminem’s Rain Man, the theme music to the Dustin Hoffman movie, none would suffice. So I relented and opened the treasure chest of scissors and in no time the floor was crowded with stretched out children shredding magazines.

Unheeded, I slid across the floor and leaned against the wall for a few moments rest before the inevitable demands for paste would ensue. I looked over the heads and headscarves of these eager, knowledge-hungry children and it occurred to me that, in ways I could never have imagined, I was indeed the rain man, bringing refreshment to thirsty souls. It was quite easy really and had only been made difficult by my own expectations.

For the evening classes, Susan had the adults and some of the more advanced children while I took the younger boarders who were often very tired. They couldn’t go to bed as the room used for the adult class transforms into their sleeping quarters. Mostly we played games - Dominoes, Snakes and Ladders, Ludo, six-pin bowling, ball tossing games and so on. As my instructions and explanations were in English, albeit accompanied with exaggerated and occasionally exasperated mime, this too qualified as learning English. It took me a while to accept that fun and games can facilitate proper learning. It had also taken till now, well after her retirement, to truly appreciate my wife’s profession. As they say, nothing teaches like doing.

All too soon we had come to the end of our time in Kuantan. Under Latif’s tutelage the children repeated scripted thanks, wishing us well and inviting our return and then, spontaneously, one child began to sing. I don’t recall which song but very soon all joined in and continued through the entire repertoire of songs that we had used during our stay. Mostly they were fun songs but the rendition had a melancholic edge of, ‘we will miss you’. Holding back tears, we swelled with gratitude and love. It was the perfect ending – melodious English, with sweet and spicy accents, from the mouths of innocents.

Our sincere thanks to everyone associated with the Rohingya Peace Institute and Yayasan Geutanyoe, in particular Lilianne and Latif.  

John and Susan Brinnand.


Lilianne Fan and Latief
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