KUALA LUMPUR: Sitting in a circle, the women one by one took turns to read aloud from their notes. “I’ve been suffering since yesterday,” recited one lady in English.

Suffering from a fever, a cold, a headache – they learnt to say a litany of symptoms. Basic though the conversation might be, without this they wouldn’t be able to tell a doctor what was wrong with them, and get the right – or even any – treatment.

A few words that made all the difference from total helplessness.

The 18-year-old responsible for starting such classes? He was one of their own – that is to say, one of approximately 77,000 Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia. 

Mohamudul Hasson Roshid arrived in the country in 2016. Fresh off the boat after a harrowing journey from Bangladesh via Aceh, the teenager quickly set about looking to the needs of his fellow refugees who, unlike him, didn’t have the advantage of knowing English.

SS Malaysia refugees Hasson english lesson

Mohamudul Hasson Roshid saw the need to teach Rohingya women English so they could get by in Malaysia.

He co-founded the Rohingya Peace Institute as a school for his community; he also established a health project for Rohingya families, supporting them in their medical cases. And he’s still not done with uplifting his displaced community, for whom he hopes to be a voice.

In another part of Kuala Lumpur, 36-year-old Afghan Saleh Sepas is giving fellow refugees the chance to be their own voice – as part of a theatre troupe.

Feeling isolated and disenfranchised his first year here, he came to realise that was what many of the 1,600-plus Afghan refugees and asylum seekers in the country grappled with as well. And so he founded Parastoo Theatre as their outlet.

Now, he’s raising awareness about Malaysia’s refugee population – officially numbering more than 160,000, one of the largest in South-East Asia. 

SS Malaysia refugees Saleh actors voice

With Parastoo, Saleh Sepas wants to give disenfranchised refugees a voice.

It’s not an immediately visible fact, because the refugees don’t live in camps as they do in some other host countries; instead, families set up home in any low-cost housing they can afford. 

And because they have no legal status  in Malaysia, even if they are registered with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), they are unable to officially work – though work they must, often in low-paying menial jobs that see them exploited – or to attend government schools.

But amid this indefinite state of limbo, some are striving to build new lives for their community in a new land.

WATCH: Their Malaysian dream (14:17)

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