Music without borders: Scots in tune with refugee children in Malaysia

It’s another great example of how global citizens, including Scots, will go out of their way to help others less fortunate than themselves.

Lucy Smith, from Dumbarton, has spent the past two months volunteering in a Myanmar refugee camp in Malaysia, teaching music to children of the Lautu people, a minority Christian ethnic group from Chin State.

The Malaysian government does not permit the refugees to attend public schools, so they have established their own.  This one, in Kuala Lumpur, has 45 children, four teachers who are themselves refugees, Lucy, and one other foreign volunteer who teaches dental care.

“I think the idea [of going to Malaysia] came when I was talking to my cousin about how vulnerable the children were,” Lucy recalls, “And how difficult their situation in Malaysia was. I wanted to help but wasn’t sure exactly how, and she said ‘just do what you can’.”

She could teach music, which has been a big part of her own life from the age of 7.  She plays piano to a grade 8 standard, explaining: “I have a small business at home as a pianist and singer, playing for weddings.”

Before she travelled to Malaysia, she sought funds for purchasing instruments and music books.  She raised enough money to buy recorders for all the children, a selection of percussion instruments, and music books.  “All of the money for instruments and books came from Scotland,” she said.  “A wonderful example of how Scotland is directly helping refugees from Myanmar.”

While Lucy has been teaching western music and music theory, her pupils have taught her songs in Burmese and in the Chin Hakka language.  They have rich musical traditions of their own, and Lucy has enjoyed the cross-cultural exchanges that happen in her classroom.  “They are so musical,” she says.  “They have learned more than I would have guessed, and so am I.”

Lucy is also using music to build bridges between the refugees and the wider Malaysian community, which has a long-standing history of excluding refugees.  Local musicians visit the school, and students from the International College of Music have performed for the children, while the Ann Perreau Music School in Kuala Lumpur arranged a music festival.  The Lautu students had the opportunity to perform, as well as participate in workshops where they sung, made instruments, and learned tunes on the glockenspiel.

She hopes that the links between the local musicians and the refugee community will make the project sustainable after she leaves the country in August.  She thinks the music has been a huge benefit to the children, providing them with a creative outlet, and an opportunity to build self-esteem and confidence and have fun in the tough environment of a refugee camp.

She is positive that the project can grow.  “Local musicians here in Malaysia are enthusiastically donating their time and skills to educate and enrich children’s lives. The wonderfully kind teachers and pupils of the Lautu Education Centre for Refugees have welcomed me warmly into their school and their community.

“They have embraced this music project with open hearts and it is a success because their hard work, motivation and hope have made it so.”

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