[EXCLUSIVE] Ilya Balqis, The 21-year-old Malaysian Who Is Transforming Syrian Children’s Lives

We’ve read about it, we’ve seen it scrolling through social media, but who would step up to the plate and make a difference? Meet Ilya Balqis — the 21-year-old Malaysian helping refugees in Jordan.

Text and Interview Jessica Nair Photography Courtesy of Ilya Balqis

In today’s day and age, we’re all desensitised by the plight that people around us suffer from. We see it as we’re scrolling through our social media feed, we see it highlighted in our favourite documentaries on Netflix — but how often do we actually do something? Unfortunately, almost never.

Which is why #TeamCLEO was extremely moved to know that there are people out there making a change — specifically a young Malaysian female, who is taking time out of her day to help a community in need.

We spoke with 21-year-old law student, Ilya Balqis, who’s based in Jordan and is the current principal of Sekolah Kita. What’s Sekolah Kita? It’s a not-for-profit school started by the founder of Cinta Syria Malaysia, Ahmad Musa, to provide Syrian children with the education they need. In fact, there are two more Sekolah Kita — one in Turkey and another right here in Malaysia.

making a difference

Ilya (back row) takes a pic with some of the kids of Sekolah Kita

As the principal of the school, Ilya ensures that they partner with the right Jordanian NGO, manages the logistics of the school while also ensuring funding received from Malaysians via Cinta Syria Malaysia is properly utilised to benefit the children. She and the team of Malaysian students also hires Jordanian teachers to teach the children English, Mathematics, Science, Islamic Studies and the Arabic language.

The school is located in Mafraq, close to the Syrian border — making Mafraq home to the largest number of refugees in Jordan. While the refugees do receive aide in the form of coupons and money from the World Food Programme as they cross the border, however, when it comes to education, they can often be left behind even if they enroll in the local government schools.

“There are students in 6th grade and they have yet to grasp their ABCs, how are they going to cope? Which is why Sekolah Kita’s main focus is to teach the kids how to read, write and count. That’s the foundation that the kids need,” says Ilya.

Deciding to Volunteer

Enthusiastic kids enjoying their classes

“My classes at university end at 3.30pm and I usually had the rest of the day to myself — unless there were examinations looming, then I would spend my time studying. I started thinking that I would like to use this free time to volunteer and gain some experience and that’s when I found Sekolah Kita. I wanted a way to be useful to others, and Sekolah Kita gave me that. I may not have the money to give but I do have the energy and capability to help manage the school.

For me it’s simple, I’m living comfortably while the people around me are suffering — is that life? We need to share our happiness. It’s the most basic thing anyone could do.  I’m here with my scholarship, my family is happy and healthy, I don’t have any struggles. And then I see the kids here, sure, they might go to school but in the mornings, you can see them picking coins from the roadside while some use their free time to sell tissue packets — how could I just ignore that?” Ilya lamented.

The Challenges

Class in session!

In Jordan, while the government doesn’t stop anyone from helping refugees, it does need to be done legally. Foreign NGOs are required to partner with a registered Jordanian NGO, who would vet through the materials used at the school to ensure the kids are not being misled down the wrong path. However, as the local NGOs are aware that foreign NGOs need their help to operate, some ill-intentioned ones can take advantage of those actually trying to help.

“I actually came back to Malaysia for 10 days earlier this year because I was so stressed after dealing with the previous NGO that we worked with, who took advantage of us. We had paid the rental for the building and all the utilities bill in full before moving in and soon enough, they started conquering the space for their own usage.

It was supposed to be on a sharing basis where we used the space for the student’s lessons in the afternoon, however, soon, the children’s classes had to be conducted in a cabin under the summer heat. Can you image 7-year-old children trying to learn in a cabin without air conditioning? The air-conditioned room that we were supposed to use? It was converted into a lawyer’s office by that NGO.

I couldn’t take it anymore and things soon worsened after I had confronted them and decided to end the contract and move out. I guess they were unhappy with that and I started getting threatening messages saying they have my passport and that they could get me deported. Fortunately, a lecturer’s father who’s a lawyer helped me and now we’ve partnered with a much better NGO. We’ve learned our lesson — this time around we’re not paying anything in full!” Ilya stated.

“A lot of my friends and family do ask me why do I put myself through this or how do I even manage my time when I’m at the school most of the time. It’s the kids’ enthusiasm honestly. These kids only have an hour gap from the time the finish their class at the local government school to the time that their lessons start at Sekolah Kita and yet every day, they show up with such enthusiasm. They participate in discussions in the class, they’re excited to answer questions — what’s my excuse then to not show up? It makes me happy to see them happy.

Help Wherever You Are

The team at Sekolah Kita

Anne Frank once wrote, “No one has ever become poor by giving,” and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” Does that mean we have to go to other countries that are in need to be able to make a difference?

“Some people might misunderstand. No, I am not saying you need to come to Jordan and help the Syrians. Just lend a hand wherever you are, to anyone. Maybe your neighbour needs help? You don’t have to deliberately go to another country to help. Lookout for communities that might be marginalised right where you are,” Ilya said.

*At the time of this interview, it seems uncertain if the Sekolah Kita in Jordan would continue as the number of Malaysian students have lessened over the years. Should there be insufficient manpower, the school could possibly cease to operate by mid 2019. Learn more about the team and how you can help via facebook.com/cintasyriamalaysia