HUMANITY LOST AND FOUND

HUMANITY LOST AND FOUND
There is a hand written sign on the wall at Ms. Lubna Sheikh Ghazali's desk that reads: "SNAP BACK TO YOUR HUMANITY". At the UNHCR Legal Aid programme, I came with my humanity, lost my humanity, and found it back again. At the Exit Review for Legal Aid, the common theme I found was that most people learnt to find empathy with other members of society which were 'less fortunate' (I loathe that term). I was already aware and ready to feel at a loss referring to the arbitrariness of life (why would it be, that the woman across the table from me had to have the worst lot, while I got to have the best lot in the life lottery?), but I didn't know I would find moments where I ceased to care. That is the honest truth.

My experiences with UNHCR were blessedly varied. I took Incident Reports ("IRs") from anything to police extortion, rape, kidnapping, harassment, employers who wouldn't pay their unprotected vulnerable workers, runaway wives, missing husbands, dead children, dead brothers, divorces, refusals to divorce, arrests to attempted murder. I say 'blessed' because that was about me, not them. It was for my exposure. I always knew that there was a tremendous problem with statelessness in Malaysia. I always knew that economic opportunities were remarkably far and few between, but I had not focussed on the minutiae of details of just how difficult it is to function in a society with no means of economic survival.

I saw people who were brutally honest. I saw people who lied like they breathed. I learnt how to bring back my humanity every time a new POC walked into an interview room with me, and start afresh. This is a good person you need to help. And when the answers didn't seem to add up, I learnt to remind myself of the other fact - that people don't always mean to lie, but that the human mind is a fallible recess of fact, details, dates, colours, descriptions and emotions.

Worst still, most times there were no answers from me. No, UNHRC cannot process the Body Release letter, he's not your brother on file. No, I don't know when RSD will call you. No, I cannot bring your wife back and make her behave (that was pleasurable to say). No, I cannot ask the camp in Pakistan to search your husband's family for the gold he stole from you. No, UNHRC cannot give you more security. No, we cannot give you a UNHCR card. No, UNHCR cannot offer you financial help, you don't quality. No, you don't quality for further assistance from the Health Unit. I'm sorry I don't know. And of course there was the worse one - "I am sorry for your loss." What I learnt is that life is complex, and tragically so. I ideologically believe that all these people should be absorbed into my society. I believe that we have the economic, social and moral capacity to accept them as our own. Life has been unfair to them. Now, they should be with us as brothers and sisters. But my time at UNHCR tested these ideological beliefs, and also refined them. Most people need a Durable Solution. If they cannot return (a huge question mark to my mind, especially when we deal with the Chin today, who are no longer deemed protected persons), they need a place to put solid foundations down, and re-build their own lives, or the lives of their children. UNHCR attempts to provide that solution for as many people as possible.

But not all should be helped, and not all can be helped - at least not at UNHCR's cost, time and resources. It is incumbent on national governments like my own to integrate long term, domiciled persons as much as we can. It is a messy world, many nations are no longer willing or able to re-settle displaced persons. So should we rise to the challenge? I have learnt that it is alright for that question not to be answered with so much certainty.

But I mean well when I say not every person can be helped. These are the high-hanging fruit with particular vulnerabilities. Even perpetrators of crime that I interviewed, came to be this way because life didn't start so well for them. When I snapped back my humanity, I even came to understand, albeit bitterly, a man who I was certain and repeatedly raped his partners (this was admittedly, never proved). And then I learnt that despite all the moments where there was no answers, or worse, where I was instructed to say 'no', or there was little help for the high-hanging fruit - I had to be kinder, stronger, and work harder. I had to be a professional, and dig deeper for a practical solution for these people. I couldn't 'not care' and leave it there. There were times I drove myself (after saying no, sorry) to run back to the office, or run to other units and try again. Try harder. Try again. Get some satisfactory advice. Get some advice to the POC that made it worth his or her time coming in to bravely report to UNHCR. And sometimes I succeeded. Sometimes I didn't - but I learnt that that was okay.

This experience taught me resilience.
Looking at every POC's face was like looking at a reflection of myself. So little separates us. What would I feel in their shoes? I will always remember the look of gratitude on the faces of the ten men, and the single women that I released from Bukit Jalil. If I felt remotely resentful I needed to wait all day for them, it melted away from the moment I saw them all safe and sound, and I signed them out of the detention centre from an officer who laughed at me saying - "they're yours now!" I asked myself what to do with them. Mr Deven had specifically told me not to bring them back in the office, and if I must, I should send them to a bus stop nearby, and if I really really had to - to KL Sentral. When I told them, their happy faces fell. How would they get to where they wanted to go from KL Sentral? All of them had no money. They chorused that they wanted to go to Kota Raya. I looked at my watch. It was 5pm on a Friday evening and the traffic was already building up. My driver, Mr. Tana didn't look so pleased either. I felt like a failure. I wanted to drop them off somewhere helpful, but it I felt I would have to say 'no' as it simply wasn't on the way back to the office. Then Mr. Tana said - "let's drop them off at Kota Raya". I felt so grateful and relieved. And all the way through, Mr. Tana spoke to them in Malay, making conversation, assuring them. I hardly spoke any Malay at the time (it was gotten better after my 14 weeks at UNHCR) so I could not partake in the conversation. And at the end as they disembarked from the bus looking as if they were stretching their legs for the first time in a month - he said "jaga-jaga!" They waved and thanked us profusely.

UNHCR's greatest asset is its people. Any institution, company, community or society's best assets are the people that make up the components of it. Sometimes we have to stand by ourselves and find resilience. But other times we only need to look to the impressive people that are part of it for support. UNHCR's staff, from the driver Mr. Tana, to Ms. Lubna, to Ms. Deva, to the interns, Jack, Sharon, Josh, to name a few - to the security - everyone whose paths I have had the pleasure to cross; have dispensed their jobs kindly, with humility, and with great humour. They have me the strength over the last few weeks to feel I could do the same and do all I could to help. I am honoured to have been welcomed as a member of the UNHCR family over the last few weeks, so I could walk the foothills of this insurmountable mountain of humanity with them, for a short while. They taught me that it is possible to go the extra mile, if only you try, and make sure you laugh while doing it. I even re-learned a new phrase:
Jaga-jaga, dan Selamat Tinggal!
EMILY CHEAH (KLLAC/UNHCR PROGRAM)