Just like every one of us, Heidy Quah, the Founder and Executive Director of Refuge For The Refugees, had her fair share of challenges when she decided to step up her game and go all out to help the refugees and migrant workers in Malaysia as early as the first MCO.

Waking up to hundreds of hate messages when she was already swamped at work took a real toll on Heidy but despite questioning her decisions countless times, she stood tall and kept fighting for what was right in the past year. As the saying goes, behind every strong woman lies a story that gave her no other choice but to keep going when the going gets tough – and this was the exact case for Heidy.

Moving forward, she has taken the pledge to challenge injustice in this country and to continue fighting for the rights of these marginalised communities as she believes that as a woman, she has a task to accomplish and she will overcome her battles with her team despite all odds.


Can you share with us how you’ve been coping with everything in the past year?

“Frankly, it has been really hard for all of us. While many of us have been able to stay home and stay safe, it wasn’t the case for the refugees and migrant communities cos it meant that they had to lose their source of income and depend on daily wages. So in between running 25 schools, two halfway homes and a social business school, I had to go out and get the basic needs sorted for these communities. My team and I also started running our own food aid program where we catered to the needs of 1,000 families every single week.”

Why did you choose to fight for this cause even at the height of the pandemic?

“For me, it was because I understand how many things that we take for granted are actually privileges in the eyes of others. I’ve had people mock me and say that I’m a rich kid, but the truth is that I am not. I come from an average single-income family. As I was growing up, I always thought that privilege meant having fancy houses, big cars, nice clothes and the latest gadgets. This was because I saw my cousins and neighbours getting all of these things every single year. But over the years, I’ve come to realise that privilege means getting access to education, having a voice, not having to worry about my next meal and being able to go out without fearing for my safety. So what am I doing with the privileges that I have in hand? What am I going to do with my voice? What am I going to do to make use of the benefits that I’ve been given just for being a citizen in this country? That’s why I decided to stand up and go all out for those who don’t have the privilege of having all these 'basic' things.”

How did you work on achieving your goals when we all had to go through the MCO together?

“For me, it was really learning how to rally people on this journey with me. For the longest time, I’ve struggled in delegating [tasks]. But when the pandemic took place, the needs of others became my priority, and it was all about learning to invite others on the journey and sharing with them the vision and goal of what we were working towards. It was really amazing to see Malaysians from all walks of life come together every Saturday to do what they can – from packing groceries to chopping chicken and even sewing grocery bags so that we can reduce plastic waste.”

What was the main challenge that you faced when you embarked on this journey?

“In April or May last year, there was a rise in xenophobia and the cyberbullying became extremely intense. People questioned why I was helping foreigners instead of Malaysians. On some days, it got really intense and I could wake up to 100 nasty messages which was really disheartening. What people usually assume is that refugees and migrants purely depend on handouts and they are here waiting to receive everything from us – but that is far from the truth. These are people who’ve had to flee prosecutions and wars, and they were looking for ways to support themselves. But this situation is even harder than usual: we’re talking about a global pandemic here – when they can’t go out and earn the money that they need and are ultimately left stranded. People also assumed that as an NGO, we were being funded by the government and using taxpayers’ money to survive. But we didn’t get a single cent. We had to fundraise everything by ourselves and I really had a huge challenge of trying to explain this to people.”

Was there a point where you broke down and felt that you couldn’t solve a problem?

“No, not at all. It was really incredible. My team was extremely creative and each time we came across a problem, we’d put all our heads together and come up with a solution. It wasn’t just for the food aid program, but we came up with an entire logistics program as well. My team remained undefeated. They’ve been so resilient and they showed up weekly with an excellent spirit just like how it was when they started with us. At some point, things did get really toxic and I felt like I couldn’t continue with the work anymore, but because of the team that I had, I kept my focus and continued doing what I needed to. If they were this eager and energetic, why couldn’t I give my best?”

Throughout the whole process, what did you realise, and what are you most proud of achieving while you were doing this?

“I was really mind-blown by how kind Malaysians are and can be. In a single week, we had to raise about RM60,000 and in all honesty, that was really a daunting task. When it came to raising money, I always ask myself if it’s impossible because people have already given time and again – but to my surprise, Malaysians continued to show us their generosity. Despite the cyberbullying and xenophobia that was happening simultaneously, Malaysians found ways to be creative. Not just by giving donations but also by finding ways to help us by elevating the voice on ground; be it coming and taking pictures, telling stories of what we do or just connecting us with their networks, I think that was really, really encouraging. It was a time where Malaysians from all walks of life regardless of gender, race and age came out to help.”

As a woman, what does this year’s International Women’s Day mean to you?

“It is really significant for me because I think of my fellow colleagues and I think about the communities that we serve, the refugee women and the victims of trafficking. I think about their courage, their resilience and their boldness to overcome challenges. And so, to me, this year’s IWD means overcoming the best along with overcoming our own barriers and struggles. It’s bringing people on a journey with us so that they too can overcome their problems. There’s just so much power involved when women champion other women.”

In line with the IWD2021 theme ‘Choose to Challenge’, what is the one thing you’d like to challenge yourself to do more of in the coming year?

“For me, it’s to speak up about injustice. It’s really a hard thing to do because it’s scary and having to deal with its repercussions is even scarier. But I believe that it’s very important to speak up against injustice. I don’t want to hold my voice back or skimp on my words when I speak about hard topics. I want to be bold and courageous when addressing difficult topics and I want to be able to address the elephant in the room. It also means challenging the right people but doing it with grace and wisdom.

Photography & videography: Tan Guo Xiang
Art Direction:
Zariel Zahann
Rachel Dulis
Vasenta Selvanayagam & Yang Mei Ling
Assisted by:
Angela De Souza
Makeup& hair:
Kenny Yee/Makeup Miracle

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