KUALA LUMPUR: Hasan Al-Akraa enters the coffee shop with quick, energetic steps, takes a seat and orders a mug of teh tarik in fluent Malay. When asked if he would like something to eat as well, he explains that he just had lunch.
Hasan is the founder of the Al-Hasan Volunteer Network, which has some 400 volunteers and over 100 events under its belt. He is a busy man – and he is all of 19.
He established his network in 2016, when he was 15. His goal was to inspire other youth to get involved in volunteer work and social projects for refugees as well as local Malaysians in need of help.
This in turn was inspired by his own experience as a refugee. Hasan and his family arrived in Malaysia from war-torn Syria in 2012. They didn’t know a word of English or Malay, only Arabic.
His father’s health deteriorated soon after their arrival, leaving Hasan to support his family at the tender age of 12. He found work at a restaurant, doing anything he was told to do. “I was washing dishes, cleaning tables; I was the chef’s assistant,” he told FMT.
But refugees are not allowed to work in Malaysia, and in 2014, Hasan was arrested by immigration authorities.
Even now, five years later, he is reluctant to talk about his experience in the detention centre.
“I don’t like talking about my life in prison,” he said. “It came to a point where I would rather have died in the war than in that centre.”
Hasan spent nine days in the detention centre, restricted from seeing his family and deprived even of sunlight. On the ninth day, he was released as he was registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as a documented refugee.
Although he prefers not to dwell on his time in detention, he recalls meeting other refugee children there, Rohingya children whose families had fled hardships even worse than his.
“I was 14. These kids were younger than I was – 11, 12, 13. Listening to their stories really opened my eyes to the problems faced by refugees who are in worse positions than I am,” he said.
He told of one child who had seen his father beheaded before his eyes, and another who witnessed his house burnt to the ground.
“They had nothing left, they just wanted to escape. They came out of the boat and were taken all the way from Penang to Kuala Lumpur and placed in the detention centre.”
He said this made him realise how ungrateful he had been. “At least I had my parents, at least I had my UN card, at least I was documented, at least I would be released soon. But the others had nothing.”
A new start
After his release, Hasan began volunteering at refugee schools. At 15, he was teaching and attending projects and workshops.
“I asked myself, what can I do? When people want to help, they think about money and politics but actually, if you look deep inside you, you have a lot of impact.”
He realised that refugees fleeing to Malaysia usually arrive knowing nothing about the country, its laws or languages. If he could not get refugees released from detention centres, at least he could help prevent them from being arrested.
This was the start of the Al-Hasan Volunteer Network.
It began with one project but quickly grew, beyond Hasan’s wildest dreams.
“I did not expect this,” he said. “It was all because of the volunteers who commit their time, energy, effort and skills.”
Hasan is a great believer in change, but lasting transformation, he said, requires more than just volunteers.
“We do what we can, and then we leave the rest to God. But we also need the government to do something about it.”
Lack of access to education, work and affordable healthcare are some of the main problems faced by refugees.
There are schools for refugee children, set up by UNHCR and NGOs, but conditions are often less than ideal. Up to a hundred children can be packed into a single rented shop lot, and while the teachers struggle to provide basic education, it is not enough.
For adult refugees, employment is a huge problem. Some, like Hasan, take the illegal approach by working at restaurants or cooking food at home to sell. There are risks involved, but they are willing to do what it takes to put food on the table.
As for healthcare, Hasan said even if prices are slashed by 50%, the majority of refugees will still be unable to afford treatment at government hospitals.
A refugee only for now
Although Hasan has his hands full with the Al-Hasan Volunteer Network, he dreams of still bigger things ahead. Last May, he received a scholarship to continue his foundation studies due to his volunteer work. He wants to eventually pursue a degree in education. And after that?
“My dream is to become the minister of education in Syria,” he told FMT. “Hopefully one day, I can change the education system there.”
But for now, Hasan is focusing on getting his degree. After that, he plans to expand his network to reach out to more youth and communities in need of help, not just in Malaysia but in other countries as well.
“There are some people who tell me, Hasan, you are really bad. Why did you run away from your country? Why didn’t you stay and help protect it?
“But if all the young people fight in the war and die, who is going to rebuild the country? Who is going to clean up the mess?
“We, the young people, can do that. So it is okay to leave the country, it is okay to become a refugee for now.”
His advice to everyone is simple: just get involved.
“Use your social media, spread awareness and, if you want to, volunteer.
“Go out and make refugee friends, hear from them personally. This is the most effective way. Visit a refugee family and just let them feel like they are not alone in this world.”