It always seems a little odd to me to hear Deborah Henry still being referred to as a beauty queen these days. She continues to look the part, for sure, and continues to exude the same statuesque quality typically associated with beauty queens. Indeed, it was 10 years ago that Deborah wore the Malaysian sash at the Miss World pageant – one of the few – to make it to the semi-finals. Four years later, she became the public’s choice to represent the nation at the Miss Universe pageant in Brazil.
But it is perhaps what she has done since being crowned that defines Deborah as an individual. As her sister Rebecca so aptly put it while speaking at her wedding, “Sometimes beauty queens really do want world peace.”
“It is an amazing achievement,” she says when asked about the constant Miss Malaysia reference. You carry it for a year but you must be able to move from it.”
That she certainly has, moving in a direction that not many of her counterparts have done. In recent years, Deborah has established herself as an activist following her work with the refugee community. In 2009, Deborah co-founded the Fugee School with Shikeen Halibullah and Shafie Mohamed. The school began with 60 children when the trio identified the need for education amongst the refugee community. Since then the school has grown to accommodate 160, with 40 students on the waiting list.
“It has been eight years of running the school,” she says. “It is a non-profit so the stress of fundraising is always there. We want to step up and do more.”
Part of that involves launching the stakeholder programme, an initiative developed with her husband Dr. Rajiv Bhanot, that is aimed at raising funds while at the same time highlighting the plight facing the refugee community. Going by the theme that “No Child Be Left Behind,” the campaign brings to our attention the harsh reality that some children face simply because of the social structure they were born into; that 263 million children across the globe do not go to school, that girls are 50% more likely to never start school, that more than 20,000 refugee children in Malaysia have no access to education.
“It is about fundraising but it is also an awareness campaign,” she explains. “It is about refugees in Malaysia but also about doing tangible work and impacting lives in Malaysia through various programmes and talking about it.”
That involves getting the students at the Fugee School to share their own stories. An example would be a recent video made by the students entitled Project Stand Up. The story focuses on a young girl who is told she can’t teach football simply because she is a girl. That then serves as a catalyst to explore the subject of gender identity and the discrimination that exists between boys and girls in the Somali community. The video was submitted to the Girls Impact The World Film Festival and made it to the top six.
“These are the ways we put what we are doing on the map to get attention,” she explains. Malaysia, she adds, is often forgotten when it comes to refugees.
“Apart from the Rohingya crisis, the perception is that we don’t really need help, limelight or attention.”
Running an NGO, she admits, has not been easy. The industry is a competitive one when it comes to vying for an “individual’s attention, sympathy, empathy and time.” But once a chord has been struck, transferring that sympathy or empathy to an actual donation, often doesn’t happen.
“But people understand, they get it,” Deborah says. “Which is why this stakeholder campaign is so important. We can’t turn to the government and corporations are limited in how much they want to help. If everyone did this, it would have a massive impact.”
At present, the monthly expenditure of running the school stands at RM20,000. Through the various fundraising activities, Deborah hopes to raise a steady inflow of funds amounting to RM30,000 a month. That, she says, will allow the organisation to embark on starting a social enterprise initiative that would involve producing items to be sold to help fund the school.
“That would make it more sustainable and also change the perception of how people see the refugee community,” Deborah explains. “If we have the money to expand, we would probably have over 250 students in our school.”
There are also plans for the Fugee School to play a greater role in representing the refugee community by providing more services. An example of this is the Certe-Bridge programme currently being run by the school which prepares students for tertiary education.
“We open up to tertiary level students who want to apply but don’t know how,” Deborah explains. It is about preparing students to be global citizens. Motivation and leadership, she says, are two qualities that are lacking in many students, despite the fact these have a direct impact on them.
“The programme is about building that in them and empowering them with a strong sense of who they are, coupled with academics and opportunities to succeed, that is how I see it.”
Our interview takes place just a couple of weeks after Deborah and Rajiv made a commitment to each other in what can only be described as the oft used term ‘fairy-tale’ wedding. Life post the wedding things have just evolved naturally.
“It’s a journey,” she says. “It just flows and to have two people who can do that together…. “