Seeing the refugees at our doorstep

Nicole Wong // July 9, 2020, 8:40 pm


Photo by pixpoetry on Unsplash.

The lady appeared to be in her 60s, perhaps 70s. We learned the story of how her eldest son was killed before her eyes.

The family had fled then for their lives and came to Malaysia, and were waiting for their papers to be processed so they could resettle in another country. 

I was shocked and burdened to know her real age – she was 47 years old!  The wounds of grief and trauma had aged her. 

They were the eyes of survivors of Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, horrific memories of genocide playing in their minds. 

At the school office, a teenager was with his mother. We were told that they were pleading with the school to grant him a place to receive an education. This was a common sight and it broke the hearts of the teachers each time they had to turn away another applicant as they were out of classrooms and teachers. 

The verse, “The fields are ripe for harvest, the labourers are few …” (John 4:35), flashed across my mind. I had a glimpse of the mother and son …. the boy’s eyes were glazed.

I have seen those eyes before. These were the eyes of homeless men whose lives were robbed through years of drug use in the streets of Canada seeking shelter from the harsh winter.

They were the eyes of survivors of Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, horrific memories of genocide playing in their minds. 

They were the eyes of some of my patients with HIV, survivors of child abuse, despair and years of rejection by families and friends. 

The eyes speak of our common humanness in response to pain.

The least of them

Before going on the “vision trip” to ElShaddai Centre Berhad in Kuala Lumpur, my prayer was that God would allow me to see people through His eyes. I believe what I beheld were His answered prayers. 

They are what the Bible and the world perceive as “the least of them”, distant realities that don’t concern us. Our world is peaceful, blessed with multiple options for food and holidays. 

God has used the team of social workers and art therapists to build a sense of safety for the students and help the teachers manage trauma.

My new prayer is: Help me see Christ in each of them – “For as much as you have done for the least of them, have done it unto Me”. (Matthew 25:40)

“The nations are at our doorstep” – the words of Andrew Ng, the founder of ElShaddai Centre Berhadrings loud alongside the verse Matthew 28:19: “Go ye into all the nations …” 

Andrew is a visionary and a doer. He believes in building movements, not monuments for God. 

My new prayer is: “Help me see Christ in each of them.”

When he was offered a building for the work of the El Shaddai Centre where they run a school for 700 students, healthcare services, social enterprise and other work, he declined. 

He believes it is more important to gather people and churches to be involved in this work. 

The work was growing with more volunteers coming from different parts of the world, but so are the refugees – “the fields are ready for harvest, the labourers are few”.

And so our team – Lim Boon Chee, Gillian Ong, Anne Lee (not her real name), Yenn Ang, Lim Wee Kuan and myself – consisting of social workers and art therapists, aged 35 to 50, heeded the call and went. 

The mission was to support about 100 students and 50 teachers who work in the school for refugee children aged 4 to 18. The team focused on building a sense of safety for the students, and helping the teachers manage trauma.

We began our work with a mix of earnest energy along with apprehension, and the desire to be God’s hand that comforts, soothes and equips.

To alleviate their sense of abandonment and trauma, therapy work needed to focus on building a sense of safety alongside building the capability of the staff to manage the complex needs of the children.

The students became our main “clients” and the teachers became our students to whom we could impart skills and knowledge so that they could better support the students who had trauma issues masked as behaviour presentations of defiance, anger, meltdowns, truancy and withdrawal. 

Finding a home in God

With each encounter we had on our trips, God revealed His heartbeat for the people. The reality of displacement, suffering, separation and trauma was real.

A teacher invited us to chat with a class of students so the teenagers could practise their English. I was amazed by how many countries and people groups were represented there.

Planning games for therapy. ElShaddai Centre has about 100 refugee students aged four to 18, many of whom have experienced some kind of trauma in their young lives.

They were from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Vietnam, Pakistan. They behaved as any teenager would – curious, playful, shy, supportive of each other, else taunting and teasing. Their mood turned sombre when I invited them to share how they had come to Malaysia. Many were able to recall in vivid detail their days of traveling by bus, truck, ship, train or plane to reach the Centre.  

I pondered over what “home” meant to them. To remain in their home country would have meant the certainty of death; yet leaving heralded an uncertain future. 

Creating a God-inspired atmosphere of affirmation.

Even after arriving in Malaysia, without the proper papers, their situation remained precarious in terms of housing, healthcare, education, jobs, resources, social support. They had to learn new ways of living that were strange to them. 

I prayed that God would be their home – one that was not defined by place, but a heart condition where they could find peace and comfort, acceptance, love, and most of all, space to heal.

And the six of us prayed that God would use us to be part of that process. 

Out of the very little that he had, this young man remained generous and giving. 

If I spoke solely of the suffering and displacement of the refugees, I would not be doing justice to their resilience, solidarity and kindness.   

We met this group of youth who were either orphaned or separated from their families. The Centre offered them accommodation but also enabled them to stay connected to their communities. 

Having lost their families, they found a bigger family supporting them. 

We were moved when one of the boys gave us a candy each. Out of the very little that he had, this young man remained generous and giving. 

On one of my trips, I met this man in his 50s. He had a distinctive radiance on his face. He was with his family waiting to pick up his son after school. We were introduced to him by the teacher and this gentleman shared in a rather joyous tone about his life back in his country where civil wars and unrest had forced them to flee. 

When he came to Malaysia, he was plagued by many health issues and had gone through heart surgery. I was puzzled by this apparent incongruence: What gives him such joy instead of being downcast despite all that he had been through? 

He answered my question with a chuckle and shared how the support and assistance from the Centre had changed his life. 

Last week, he said, he and his family “went through the water”. The teacher explained: He had just been baptised. This had given him a sense of peace and joy he had never before felt, he said. 

I almost cried, moved by God’s work in this man’s life who was living the verse: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”.  I wondered if this was the way Moses’ face had glowed. 

Reflecting Christ’s love

Conducting training was an adventure. 

We met teachers who were volunteers – some were refugees themselves. Some volunteers were retired persons who had never taught a class in their lives. They came with apprehension and self doubt, yet were willing vessels.

We even had a star student who could repeat all the points we shared a month or two ago, like she was reciting her ABCs.

Art therapists Gillian and Yenn carefully handling art pieces by the students.

During a teacher engagement session, I was having self-doubts on how effective we had been. 

That evening, we received a text from the teacher-in-charge, saying that the staff had had a very difficult week with many challenging situations. But their engagement session with us had been a source of encouragement, reminding them of their purpose and God’s sovereignty. What they didn’t know was that their feedback had the same encouraging effect on me. 

My teammates are quiet movers, yet their actions speak loudly. Boon Chee, my old classmate, takes on the leadership role with the full weight of a servant, coordinating and planning the trips while holding a full-time job that demands her presence till late hours. I often wonder how much of her hair has turned white from these trips. 

Our prayer is that we can build a movement of people who will open their doors to the nations at our doorstep.

I’m often moved by Yenn’s resolute heart of service. She connects easily with both adults and children, allowing them to feel safe to express their innermost thoughts. 

I first met the quick-witted and creative Gillian while we were working with patients with HIV – she was able to engage her patients in a profound way that was the beginning of healing. She has probably made the most sacrifice with her annual leave as she even had to use unpaid leave one year to do this work. 

Anne is our youngest member. Her youthful spirit, readiness to serve, and organised nature is a great boost to the team.

Wee Kuan is an old pal. She spent many years in China working and building resources for vulnerable children. Gentle in her love for God and His work, yet fierce in defending the defenceless, her experience in trauma work make us all her students too.   

Our team, who has been serving in ElShaddai for three years now, is not all about work and no play. Recreational activities like hunting for food have sometimes been the highlight of our mission trips. God also enriched our experiences and our faith in Him with interesting cab drivers, missed flights, and lost (and found) SIM cards.

Like Andrew, our prayer is that we can build a movement of people who will open their doors to the nations at our doorstep.

The nations are also represented by the migrant workers in Singapore, whose plight has taken centrestage due to COVID-19.

Shall we not open our doors to them with shining faces that reflect Christ’s love? For they, too, are made in His image.


Sister Act: These 6 women take annual leave monthly to serve refugees and migrants



If you are interested in the work with refugees, please contact the group here.

About the author

Nicole Wong

Nicole is grateful to be a social worker, where she can live out her calling to minister to the marginalised and vulnerable, both at work and in her private capacity. She is also a coffee lover and is ever on a search for the perfect brew.