HELP for Refugees is a Health, Education and Learning Program for asylum seekers and refugees in Jakarta. Established by 19-year-old Baqir from Afghanistan, the school has become a place of joy for both children and adults.
Tebet Timur Dalam in South Jakarta is a quiet neighborhood. Small streets intertwine in this residential area, where children happily play together in parks and street vendors push their food carts through the lanes. The neighborhood is also home to HELP, a learning centre from refugees for refugees.
HELP for Refugees is the brainchild of 19-year-old Mohammad Baqir Bayani who originally comes from Afghanistan but was born and grew up in Pakistan. He came to Indonesia with his family over two years ago.
“When I first arrived in Indonesia, I was inclined to continue my own education in order to empower myself and increase my knowledge,” he said. “But my dreams were shattered when I found out that it was impossible for us, as refugees, to receive a formal education at local universities or colleges.”
At the same time, Baqir’s status as asylum-seeker doesn’t allow him to work, which left him in limbo - he found himself sitting at home most of the time without having anything useful to do and knew that he had to change his situation to avoid becoming frustrated or even depressed. He then began to volunteer for Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Indonesia. During the day, he helped out as a teacher, while in the evenings he enrolled in classes himself. Still, he felt the urge to do more. It was then that his idea to establish HELP was born.
“I knew that my resources were limited, yet I was sure that there were many more refugees and asylum-seekers in Indonesia who, like me, wanted to continue their education and learn new skills,” Baqir explained.
Drawing on his network of friends, his idea quickly took shape - but it still took him one more year to finally be able to open HELP as he faced quite a few challenges along the way: funding, acquiring a fully-functioning team and communicating with the locals.
“I believe that the gap between refugees and locals needs to be overcome, and therefore I wanted to bring Indonesians into this group as well,” he said.
It also wasn’t easy to find a location for the learning centre. According to Baqir, he looked at several houses that were up for rent but once the owners found out that he wanted to open a school for refugees, they declined.
When he finally found the house in Tebet Timur Dalam, Baqir scheduled a meeting with the owner who didn’t have any issues at all with the establishment of HELP on his premises - nor did the neighborhood association. On the contrary, they said they were happy about an increase of social activities in their community.
HELP finally opened its doors on a Monday morning in September. It was a big day for Baqir and the overwhelming number of students of all ages who had signed up for the classes, he recalled with a smile on his face.
“This whole project is initiated and led by refugees for refugees,” Baqir said. “It is open to all refugees and asylum-seekers, regardless of ethnicity, country, religion, gender or age.”
The students and teachers at HELP come from many different countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen,
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Indonesia, there are around 5300 asylum-seekers and almost 9000 refugees in Indonesia - more than half of them come from Afghanistan.
Recently, Indonesia has become more liberal about refugees. In January this year, Indonesia announced that it would open its arms to refugees and asylum-seekers. A decree by President Joko Widodo states that the government will begin to protect refugees in Indonesia - which was a big step forward for the country. Presidential Regulation No.125/2016 on Refugees, as it is officially known, is the first ever comprehensive national law covering refugees in Indonesia.
“This new law in Indonesia indeed provides an example for many other countries in South East Asia and beyond on how important it is to take a humanitarian approach towards refugees — people who have been forced to flee their home countries because of war and persecution,” said Thomas Vargas, UNHCR’s Representative in Indonesia earlier this year. “Provisions allowing access to asylum and rescue at sea of those in distress are just a few of the reasons the International Community can look to Indonesia as a country that is doing right by refugees, and also migrants.”
At HELP, more than 100 students come together to learn English, mathematics, social studies, science and life skills. In the mornings, there are classes for children and teenagers, while the afternoons are reserved for adults. The teaching staff is a colourful mix of expatriates and refugees.
“The refugees who come here as teachers deserve to be paid, but we are not able to give them any money,” Baqir said. “So the least we would like to do is to cover their transportation costs. As refugees are not allowed to work, they actually pay everything out of their own pocket and coming here to teach is an extra burden on their shoulders - which is not what I intended to do when I initiated this programme. Therefore, we are looking for donations to cover their expenses.”
HELP’s HR manager Habibullah, who is a refugee from Afghanistan and teaches a few English classes, is responsible for the school’s human resources.
“We really are in need of financial support and other resources like more teachers,” he said. “I am currently developing a human resources system that meets our needs and am also busy preparing reports and budget lists.”
Mateen, also a refugee from Afghanistan, teaches basic English classes in the afternoon from 1 to 3 PM but often, he said, his students are so enthusiastic and eager, they ask to add on some extra time. He added that the school still needs volunteers who can teach the Indonesian language - it is a class that he would be interested in taking himself.
“This country is really trying to help us, and the people have been very welcoming and treat us with respect,” Mateen explained. “Our experience in Indonesia has been very good, so of course also want to learn and understand the culture, the people and the language.”
In the end, the HELP is more than just a place where refugees can further their education. It is a safe haven, a space where people who had to overcome many hardships in life come together to learn, grow and simply enjoy themselves.
“It is so rewarding to see the satisfaction of the people who come here,” Baqir said. “It doesn’t matter if it is a child or an adult - when they come out of their classes, I see happy and satisfied faces all around. I can feel the improvement in their lives and I am proud of this achievement.”
Habibullah said that all teachers hope to be able to give something to their students that will help them build a future for themselves.
“I really want them to still chase their dreams,” he explained. “We all come from different backgrounds and had to overcome ‘difficulties’ but what we are doing here is important to be hopeful and optimistic about a better future.”
Baqir agrees - while he enjoys working on his project, he hopes to truly start living his life at some point in the future.
“If I could be resettled in any country, I would be able to do so much more,” he said. “I want to be able to help millions of refugees, not only hundreds. But in order to achieve that, I need my life to move forward and I need to continue my studies. That is my dream for the future.”