Since publishing this blog, I have had the great pleasure of connecting with fellow therapists, parents, and bloggers from around the world, all of whom continue to inspire and motivate me in my own life. One particular therapist working in Malaysia, Su Chen Tan, left an impression on me because of her enthusiasm and heart for helping refugees in Malaysia.
Men, women, and children seek refuge in Malaysia to escape horrendous conditions in Burma (Southeast Asia), only to continue living in fear and persecution, as the Malaysian government does not welcome the refugees either. This post is about a group of therapists and teachers in Malaysia seeking to make a difference in the lives and futures of these refugees. If you have ever felt challenged as a student, as a parent, and as a therapist, then you will connect with Su Chen’s story.
Meet Su Chen
My name is Su Chen. I live in Kuala Lumpur, which is the capital city of Malaysia. I am a Licensed & Registered Counselor (Malaysia). I hold a Masters in Counseling from HELP University, Malaysia. I am also a Certified Trauma & Loss Specialist – Clinical (The National Institute for Trauma & Loss in Children, USA). I have also received graduate training in play therapy from the Association of Play Therapy.
My clinical work population is mainly children and adolescents, as well as their parents & family. I currently see clients at a private practice in Kuala Lumpur called KIN & KiDS (www.kinandkids.com). Besides working in the private practice, I also volunteer with various non-profit organizations benefiting at-risk children in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta (Indonesia) through development of psycho-educational programs for their community, as well as
training and consultation for the organization’s staff team on topics such as children emotional health, parenting, childcare, classroom behavior management. Til date, I have also conducted workshops for children and adolescents on the topic of self-esteem, sexual abuse, bullying, sex education, career development, and healthy body image in school, as well as underprivileged communities in in KL.
About the Refugee Counseling Program
The refugee program is the brainchild of my professors (Dr. Ng Wai Sheng & Dr. Colleen O’Neal), who won a grant from the U.S. State Department through the Alumni Engagement Initiative Fund (AEIF). They recruited 4 other mental health professionals (myself included), who were also their ex-students, to form the trainer & consultant committee. A year-long grant was awarded for a project entitled Resilient Refugee Children and Teachers in Malaysia, aimed to improve the mental health and academic success of refugee students via on-site training and mentoring of the refugee teachers in Malaysia.
To achieve the goal of a sustainable “refugee teachers-train-teachers” model, two phases of training were implemented, which are (a) refugee teachers training (where we trained the teachers on topics of caring for self-care as well as caring for students’ mental health and classroom behavior management), and (b) in-class consultation. Besides helping the trained teachers put into practice their learning, we also helped them to plan, organize and conduct peer teachers training, where the trained refugee teachers then train their peers and community in their own language. Close to 100 teachers were trained by the end of the project term, in August 2013. Furthermore, we also produced a training video and teachers’ handbook, translated into the Burmese & Arab languages, as their reference materials. Since August 2013, UNCHR has allocated funds to continue this effort by providing allowances for the refugee teachers to train their peers following the module developed from this project. Go to our blog (http://resilientrefugeesmalaysia.blogspot.com/) to view a video produced by the refugees, to download the handbook or to see the progress of the project. We are very happy with the favoring results of recent focus group findings which support the effectiveness of this program for the refugee teachers & children.
Greatest Challenges and Ongoing Needs of the Refugees
My involvement with the refugee community began a year before the AEIF project, where I interned at a not-for-profit children organization that runs a school for about 700 refugee and local at-risk children and adolescents in KL.
My greatest challenge working with the refugees is feeling overwhelmed by the devastating conditions and unmet needs of the refugee community in KL, which make me feel helpless and hopeless at times.
They live in a state of uncertainty and danger in KL, a place where they hope to seek refuge in, fleeing from their country-of-origin. Initially, it was an eye-opening experience for me, having grown up in Malaysia, to witness poverty at its extreme. It is especially devastating to see refugees, whether a child or an adult, in the state of helplessness and hopelessness. Due to their dire and vast areas of needs (whether physical, emotional, social or mental), I often feel like I have not done enough to help.
On the other hand, the greatest joy in this work comes from seeing their resilience and ability to overcome adversities despite the odds that are against them. Some of my child refugee clients are healthily adjusting to school and performing well academically. These children continue to teach and show me the meanings and depths of HEALING and HOPE.
I am very privileged to work with this population, because of the life lessons that they have taught me, as well as the meaning in life I derived from being involved with them. Besides, as an intern therapist then, I was also professionally challenged by the complexity of the child and adolescent cases received; such as physical & sexual abuse, severe neglect, grief, and trauma. Out of these children’s adverse childhood experiences, research has shown the increased susceptibility of internalizing and externalizing behaviors, such as depression and anxiety, as well as anger, aggression and bullying; which these refugee children and adolescents were also experiencing.
In Malaysia where mental health remains a field that is relatively young, there are few opportunities for further training. Therefore I am always grateful for resources and training from the US made available thanks to social media & technology, and I am also thankful for supervisors here who are invested in young professionals like myself.
Therapeutic Interventions, Techniques, and Tools
In the AEIF project, we taught the teachers on the developmental needs of children and identifying signs and symptoms of mental health issues. We also taught them classroom behavior management strategies, as well as techniques to help children regulate their emotions (i.e. empathy, self-soothing strategies) and to strengthen teacher-student relationship.
In my clinical work, I use play therapy with children. My main theoretical orientation is Child-Centered Play Therapy, as I aim to provide a therapeutic safe environment for the child (which is especially rare in the refugee children’s life, and extremely healing for them). I aim to provide children a responsive and accepting relationship as a secure base for healthy attachment which helps them process their issues. I also incorporate directive approaches of the experiential nature such as Gestalt (Oaklander) as well as cognitive-behavioral tools (e.g. anger management, social skills, self-soothing/calming) to help these children cope with their daily distresses. I enjoy using arts and crafts, games, and creative activities. I also find Sandtray Therapy especially effective and attractive for older children and adolescents. I have also completed a specialist certification by TLC. And since, I use Structured Sensory Intervention developed by TLC with traumatized refugee children.
The Very First Play Therapy Service for the Refugee Community in Malaysia
In 2012, I was instrumental in setting up a play therapy room (and play therapy service) and sandtray therapy in a not-for-profit organization (Dignity for Children Foundation) benefiting the refugees. My church and friends were tremendously supportive to sponsor for this cause and mission. According to UNHCR, this is the first play therapy service accessible to the refugee community in Malaysia. It is very heartening to know that another non-profit organization has done the same sometime this year.
I have learned that refugee children are very resilient, given the care and support needed. I have seen how a traumatized child who did not speak for a year in school, having undergone play therapy for 6 months, has since adjusted to a thriving young soccer player who is happy and enjoys school and friends. I have also witnessed the power of a loving and committed teacher who has enabled an orphan refugee to overcome his issues of neglect and abandonment. I learned that children need a safe and nurturing environment to grow, and when they do not receive that at home, school becomes their safe haven. UNHCR strives to school every refugee child in Malaysia, and I am thankful for the various partnering non-for-profits organizations that are invested in realizing this vision.
The refugee children need advocates who see their potential, even when they themselves don’t – whether from a parent, teacher, counselor, social worker, or psychologist. And when their parents are not in the capacity to care, we need to step in. Children thrive when we invest.
What’s in Su Chen’s Future?
I am constantly and rigorously equipping myself in knowledge & skills to work with children & families. One of my near-term goals (and dream!) is to pursue further studies in the US. It is my desire to channel knowledge and skills back home to grow the mental health field in Malaysia so that many more can labor alongside to provide quality mental health services and support to the under-served and at-risk population especially.
The information above is a written interview by Su Chen for this Kim’s Counseling Corner. I know her story, and the story of the refugees, will touch your hearts and inspire you as much as it does mine. I encourage you to watch the video and read the information on the Resilient Refugee Children and Teachers in Malaysia website to learn more about the difficulties the refugees face. Please post comments of encouragement for Su Chen and let us know how you were inspired by her story!!
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