Graduating from primary school was just a dream for Rohingya teenager Ali Tofik, who, until 2010, lived in Myanmar's northern Rakhine State, where access to education, particularly secondary education, is limited.
In recent decades, this ethnic and religious minority has been stripped of its citizenship and property rights by Myanmar's military-dominated government, leading to human rights abuses and exploitation and resulting in mass exodus.
Some 200,000 fled to Bangladesh over the years, with smaller numbers to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and elsewhere in the region by boat.
Now the 17-year-old is keen to get ahead, learning the Malay language with a group of younger students in the two-room Malaysian school. English, Malay, mathematics and science are taught on the second floor of a business block in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur.
"I would like to become a teacher so that I can help my people and I can teach them and talk with the international community," explains Tofik, who fled Myanmar with his family a year ago.
The local NGO-sponsored school, established in 2009, is accessible to Rohingya, but remains a rarity in Malaysia, with fewer than a dozen similar schools nationwide. Officially, Rohingya children in Malaysia cannot study in government schools without birth certificates or any other official documents.
"Most of the young children are actually born in Malaysia but can't attend the public schools because refugees do not have access to the Malaysian education system, including primary schools," Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Arakan Project, an advocacy organization for the Rohingya, told IRIN.
Illiteracy among the Rohingya is estimated at around 80 percent, with a higher percentage among women, according to the latest available data.
Without a proper education and work permits, job opportunities are severely limited for Rohingya, Lewa said.
But she has also witnessed some improvement in Malaysia's handling of arrivals by providing them with access to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), as well as halting forcing them into unscrupulous hands along the Thai-Malaysian border.
Photo: Steve Sandford/IRIN
|A group of Rohingya men sell vegetables in Kuala Lumpur|
According to UNHCR, there are some 30,000 ethnic Rohingya seeking asylum in Malaysia today, including 20,800 registered with the agency.
"Based on information gathered from the refugee communities, it is estimated that there are about 10,000 more asylum-seekers who have not yet been registered," Yante Ismail, an external relations officer with the agency, explained.
At the Rohingya Society in Malaysia (RSM), a community-based organization, deputy president Abdul Ghani and a small staff assist in registering asylum-seekers for UNHCR, which then determines their status.
It is a difficult process as most Rohingya arrivals are male and often seen by authorities as economic migrants.
But Ghani is quick to deny this. "Please don't link Rohingyas to economic migrants. We Rohingya left our country because of harassment, because of torture, the confiscation of our land. That's why we left our country to get protection from a third country. We ran away from the military regime's harassment."
Indeed, many at the RSM centre tell of the struggle to earn enough to survive and feed their families in Myanmar.
"It's impossible to maintain a peaceful family life, so I had to flee," said one young man, awaiting an interview. "Nasaka [paramilitary] forces would order us to work at their camps. If we don't go, they come to our houses during the night and take us. They lock us up in the stockade and beat us."
For many new arrivals, assimilation into Malaysia's Muslim-dominated culture is easier than in their former homeland, but until solid legislature is implemented for proper work permits, the refugees are in limbo, say aid workers.
According to UNHCR, those Rohingya who are working are in the informal sector, including irregular, low-paying menial work in construction, domestic positions, or in the local markets.