True Grit: A series of conversations with people on Mental Health and Resilience.
Episode 2: Deborah Henry. Humanitarian. Co-founder of Fugee School
Brought to you by Etiqa
Most of us belong. We belong to a family, to a group of friends, to a community—to a country. However, despite having all these support systems in place, the pandemic still managed to bring the unthinkable to our doorsteps. Lives and livelihoods were lost, and we’re all left reeling in the wake.
But what happens when you don’t belong? To whom can you turn for help?
In this conversation with Deborah Henry, our host Azran Osman-Rani delves into the life of a humanitarian and the struggles that come with it. Although many have seen Deborah’s incredible modelling and pageantry, this side of her life is not as glamorous. In fact, it’s the polar opposite.
Despite it being an arduous cycle, with each case demanding Herculean effort, Deborah perseveres. Her why is what we’re uncovering today, as well as the tools to cope with such emotional and mental challenges that this line of work presents.
What’s been some of the more challenging episodes that you’ve had to go through, especially since you’re working with the refugees?
I think we’ve all had to go through a lot of challenges in the past two years. It’s sort of this unprecedented thing that has happened to all of us, but I think we’ve gone through phases. For me personally, I started off the year in disbelief last year, and then it’s disbelief and shock, and then it sort of evolved into frustration and anger and stress, and a lot of that is just not sustainable.
So it’s been quite a challenging and stressful year. I’m on the ground; I work with the communities very closely. I see a lot of what they go through. It has kind of taken its toll in a very real way, but when you do this kind of work, you don’t have the opportunity to, in a way, take a day off—which is something I’m trying to learn how to do better. But the needs are there, so you have to step up. You have to find a solution, you have to deliver.
What was the motivation for you to start [Fugee school], and as you think about what you now go through, what have been some of the unexpected things in this journey?
I was approached by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to film a documentary about the refugee families living here. One of the families that really stuck out to me was a Somali family. I went to their home and spoke to them to find out about their life here in Malaysia, living not more than 20 minutes away from our Twin Towers.
It really stuck with me because there were these four kids in Malaysia in my home, my country, and they didn’t have access to school. Back home in Somalia, they’d missed out on a lot of school, because of the instability that exists there.
I can’t just give them a little bit of money and say ‘good luck with life’. I have to do something here because we talk about food, water, and shelter—those key rights and necessities for survival—but a kid today without an education, we’re setting them up to fail in life, right?
My university friend and I started giving them tuition in 2008. Six months later, it just morphed into a little mini-school. In May of 2009, we set up Fugee school in a small apartment in Gombak when we had 60 students, a little bit of money that we fundraised—and that’s how it began. Fast forward to 2021, we have educated over 500 children from over eight different countries.
What’s been some of the most difficult challenges that you’ve had to deal with?
We live in a multicultural country where everywhere you look, someone’s different, and I think that’s beautiful. We always talk about our unity, but do we really walk the talk?
Generally, there’s a lack of acceptance towards the refugee community and a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation. I always say, “put yourself in someone else’s shoes”. If bombs dropped on your house tomorrow, if you were forced to flee your home, what would you do to protect your kids? You’d probably pack your bags and run, and you would be knocking on your neighbour’s door going “let me in!” because I think that’s the human spirit. We are resilient, and we find ways to survive, and that bonds all of us together, no matter who you are, or where you come from. That’s been a constant frustration of mine.
Do you have one specific story of the refugee families that you deal with that have been a source of inspiration in these tough times?
There were this bunch of Afghan girls and with what’s been going on in Afghanistan. They were protesting here. I was following them on Instagram, and they reached out to me. They are very intelligent, young, and ambitious girls. They were really trying to get their voices heard in a situation where you’re a refugee in Malaysia—it’s tricky. I spoke to them and they’re amazingly gifted artists, so we sort of said like “why don’t we channel that energy to something positive?” because you’re not going to be able to get very far protesting in a pandemic. They could still tell their story through their art, and people were hugely supportive and bought their art. That was a really nice thing to witness.
Are there any recent challenges that fuel you?
Seeing our youth push themselves to get into university. They could just give up so easily and go “education is hard, how am I going to make it? What’s the point? I don’t even know where I’m going to be tomorrow”. They study, they want to get good grades. They try to apply to get into good universities and to get scholarships. It’s that fighting spirit, that persistence, which kind of gets you through it.
Earlier this year, we were going through a really tough time as an organisation. We were living month to month, and I did something which I don’t normally do. I reached out. I recorded a video, I put it on my Instagram page. It was a heartfelt, very honest conversation I just had with people who follow me. It resulted in a huge outpouring of support, in terms of funds, [and] also in terms of solidarity.
We did food drives for the past year, where people donated so generously. No one asked about where the food was going, but they gave. We were able to feed just hundreds and hundreds of families. So, things like that really give me that sense of like “okay you can keep doing this.”
Some people might say that you have it easier than others because of your Instagram following, and that’s helped you with fundraising, but tell us also how sometimes how that can also be a big challenge, and the rejections, and the frustrations that come with this.
Of course, I think I’m very privileged and blessed to be able to have a platform. That was really a very big part of why I took part in the pageants, to begin with. I saw it as a great opportunity.
But there are challenges in terms of my own insecurities when I started modelling. You get a huge amount of judgments, a huge amount of stereotypes thrown at you, like “Oh, pretty face”, “Oh, pretty girl”, “Oh, you want world peace?” It’s a lot of that that you come up against. So do people really take [me] seriously? And then you yourself develop your insecurities, and you feel like you need to defend yourself, and that imbalance happens, and I went through a lot of that in my 20s.
What energises you?
It’s the children, the kids, the youth. I think because I’m on the ground, and I actually go to the school, spend time with the children in so many different ways, I see their successes, I experience that with them. I also experience sad moments with them, so that is really the fuel.
Can sometimes sad moments also help you build more optimism in looking at things?
It’s the reality of the community. You have people passing away, like recently this family, they’ve been at our school since 2008. I knew the boy when he was literally like this tall, and they recently got resettled to Canada, and the mum got really sick earlier this year. We sent her to the hospital for some treatment, and unfortunately, she passed away. This happened about 4 months before they were resettled.
They have to keep with them this positivity, like ‘my mother would have wanted us to be happy, to move to Canada, and reach for the stars, and build the best life we can build for ourselves’. That’s the positivity they have to take with them when they go.
Do you sometimes compartmentalise your day, and just to be able to get through? How do you deal with not being overwhelmed?
I get heavy. So that’s been my challenge. I noticed it more in the past year or so, witnessing so many sad stories. It has pulled me down. With what happened with Afghanistan, working with the Afghan community here, supporting them, and then just seeing what happened there, having a very first-hand encounter of the stories going on there, that really got to me. And then watching the news… I was just emotionally wrecked, and then the decision I made was, “you know what, I should stop watching the news”, and that’s something I enjoy: waking up in the morning and putting on the TV. But I just stopped doing it, because, at some point, I was like “it’s actually very bad for me” and then I can’t actually go on in my day and do what I need to do.
What are the things you do to take care of yourself?
In the past few months, working out. A bunch of us girls got together, and we started going for Saturday morning walks. I think for me, working out has always been something that makes me feel good. In a way, sometimes, forcing myself to have fun.
Talk to us about your support networks, both within the humanitarian community, but also close friends and family, how do you rely on them.
My family and friends have always been amazing. Even when we started doing this food distribution, my mum and dad, siblings and friends were there packing. Everyone has always been incredibly supportive of everything that we do as an organisation. It’s always good to know that someone has your back. When you’re going through stuff, good and bad, you can reach out and speak to someone.
Besides the work that you do here in Malaysia, you’ve also had a chance to visit a lot of war-torn and crisis countries. Tell us about some of those experiences.
I was in Lebanon a couple of years ago on a humanitarian mission and visited Syrian refugees who crossed the border. That, and a few years later I went to Mogadishu in Somalia, which is considered to be one of the most dangerous cities on Earth. They were very deep experiences, to see people live like that.
Somalia’s such a beautiful country, but very much ravaged by war and conflict. It also helps you understand why people leave, and the struggle just to live there. We were ferried around in bulletproof cars, and armed guards. We couldn’t go anywhere. Our hotel had a bunker in it, so that’s the reality of the situation.
Two weeks after I came back, there was a bomb explosion on one of the streets that our car drove past. That’s life, you live every day like it’s your last. You live every day to the fullest. That helps me understand the people that we work with, and a point of solidarity with them, but also a point of immense frustration.
How have all these experiences changed you as a person, or has it?
It definitely has. I think a lot of people think ‘oh, you know, you’ve set up a non-profit. It’s so nice of you to give’, but it’s changed me so much. The humility, the gratitude of your life, of your existence, to not be apologetic for what you have, or who you are as a person, but to show compassion and to give to others. It’s given me a lot more purpose in terms of the kind of life I want to live, what I want to do.
What would you want to share with someone who’s going through very challenging circumstances?
I think it’s really important to have a support circle. And that can be in any way, shape, or form—whether it’s a person, whether it’s an activity. Something that you can hold on to, to turn to, that gives you some sense of strength, solace in your challenging times. Typically, when you’re going through something like that you isolate yourself. So that’s a really important connection to have with something else.
Another thing is that, I know it sounds hard, but I say this to myself as well, nothing lasts forever. It’s a phase, and it’s a moment. So it’s being able to work through that because then there is light that comes after.
Use everything you go through as an opportunity to learn, to grow, to build resilience, and just build compassion for yourself, but also for people around you. I’ve found for me personally, it is when I’m going through tough things, it’s actually by helping others that I heal.
This series on Mental Health is brought to you by Etiqa. If you want to know more about insurance and takaful products that Etiqa has to offer, including those that cover mental illness, please click here.