Heidy Quah: Giving Up University to Serve Refugees

Written By Priscilla Goy, Singapore

The turning points in our lives often come when we least expect them. For Heidy Quah, 24, it was after secondary school in 2012, when she was only 18 years old, and had time to spare before going to college and wanted to do something productive.

After searching for volunteering opportunities, Heidy and her best friend Andrea Prisha decided to teach English for four months at a Burmese refugee school in Sungei Besi, a town in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. At the time, Heidy’s main interests were in arts and crafts, baking and hanging out with friends. She was going to pursue a degree in accounting and finance, and planned to work for one of the “Big Four” accounting firms.

Heidy Quah with RFTR co-founder Andrea Prisha

But it was at the school that the children “taught me how to love as Jesus loves us,” says Heidy.

“I was just a teacher, but they scrambled to give me their best. They drank tap water, but they made sure to buy me bottled water. Once, an eight-year-old girl with bracelets picked the most beautiful one and gave it to me. It may not seem much, but she was giving her best to me.”

This was in stark contrast to some companies who donated items to the school. “They were giving their trash—clothes with period stains, coffee stains, all sorts of stains; expired milk powder; old undergarments. Perhaps to them, giving something is better than giving nothing,” she says.

“We throw around the word ‘love’ quite loosely when we say words like ‘I love you’, but to what extent do we go for a person? The children loved in such a big way, they loved so differently.”

Towards the end of her four-month stint, the school’s headmaster told her and Andrea that the school would be closed as their funding from the United Nations Refugee Agency would not be renewed. Heidy says: “I was going to pursue higher education, but here were children who were going to be robbed of their only access to education.”

So the duo raised funds for the school, turning to social media and going door to door to sell cookies. Within a week, they had raised enough money to keep the school open for six months. They then set up Refuge for the Refugees (RFTR).

In September, RFTR marked its sixth anniversary. It now supports 35 schools—10 in Malaysia and 25 in Myanmar—which care for 2,000 children in total. RTFR connects the schools with aid and resources such as volunteer teachers, syllabus help and fund-raising.


Overcoming Loneliness and Self-Doubt

Last year, Heidy was named the sole Malaysian winner of the prestigious Queen’s Young Leaders Award for her work with refugees. She was among 60 winners, selected from thousands of applicants across the Commonwealth, to be recognized for “taking the lead in their communities and using their skills to transform lives.” Heidy received the award from none other than Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.

And in June this year, she joined politics, becoming a member of the Democratic Action Party (DAP). The conversations she had with other winners of the Queen’s Young Leaders Award sparked her interest in politics, as many of them wanted to be in a position to make changes in their communities.

But Heidy’s journey in helping refugees began as a lonely one, with much self-doubt, no thanks to older adults who asked when she would get a “real job”. Setting up a new organization and having it formally registered was something that Heidy and Andrea had never done before, and they could not rely on their peers to learn how to navigate through the amount of paperwork required.

They also had to overcome language barriers and learn the Chin dialect and Burmese language in order to communicate with the children. “I used to stay up almost the entire night preparing lesson materials in two languages, just to communicate with the kids. But I am thankful that they speak really fluent English now and the years of hard work paid off,” Heidy says.

 Andrea and Heidy were often reminded of their lack of experience. Heidy says: “I’ll try to convince people that I knew what I was doing, but I would go home and struggle with self-doubt. Are we seriously doing this? Why are we doing this?”

In those moments, she would hold on to God’s call upon her life. “It’s important to know my identity and worth—is it found in the comments of man or what God has called me to do?

“I’ve been very aware that our work with refugees is a calling. We’ve seen God’s hand so clearly, that we know it’s God’s grace. When we have child-like faith and take that step of obedience, He’ll never leave you stranded. As long as it’s His will, He’ll continue to cover the bills.”

Sure enough, God sent various people to support them through different hurdles, and opened many doors for them. The process of registering RFTR, for instance, went smoothly despite it being set up by young co-founders who were clueless on how to register an NGO.


Overcoming the Fear of Missing Out

 After registering RFTR as an organization, running RFTR was still a huge challenge for Heidy, especially in their first year of operations. Heidy says: “There was a huge disconnect between my peers and me. It was frustrating on so many levels. Their conversations were revolving around J-Pop, K-Pop.”

“The RFTR work is difficult sometimes. There are days when I feel like I’m missing out on things that other young people do—they have more free time and can juggle a much smaller load of stress—and it can get lonely. I follow their InstaStories and sometimes think that I’ve got zero life and have not had a break in the longest time.

“But I chose this life, which has its perks and its sacrifices. I also love spending time with the kids, being on the ground with the community. So, in a sense, I have not missed out much either.”

RFTR work is less lonely now, with her team of volunteers. She has also had many supportive friends who volunteered with RFTR.

The moments of struggling with FOMO (fear of missing out) and other challenges in running RFTR are real, she admits. “But every time I spend time with God, He realigns my perspective and reminds me that He’ll bring me through.”


Heidy Quah (extreme left) with members of the RFTR core team and refugee children


Living Out Her Dreams

Thinking back on her journey so far, Heidy says she had recurring dreams of herself on stage for a year, before she accepted Christ into her life when she was 11 years old.

“I didn’t know then that people gave talks on stage. I thought I was going to be a performer, like a singer or dancer. I spent the next six to seven years wondering what the dream was about,” she says. She also used to speak so little that her parents thought she needed speech therapy.

Heidy now understands what those dreams meant. She has been granted not only opportunities to give talks on human trafficking, refugees and youth empowerment, but also opportunities to preach and share the love of Christ.

And God has continued guiding her as she leads RFTF. She says: “He gives me new vision for the work, shows me what needs to be done, who I need to speak to, in the everyday of spending time with Him.”

The visions get bigger and bigger, she says. “Each time I feel that we can’t go any further, because we’re already covering so much, He tells me to be humble and obedient, that it’s His plans and not mine.”

Over the years, she has also felt God leading her to venture into politics, in order to work with authorities to change laws and policies.


From NGO Founder to Politician

The life of DAP politician Hannah Yeoh is a great inspiration to Heidy. In 2013, Hannah became Malaysia’s first female and youngest speaker in a state parliament at the age of 34. In the general election in May 2018, she won the Segambut parliamentary seat and is now the country’s Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development.


Heidy Quah with Hannah Yeoh


Heidy says: “There isn’t one thing that Hannah did that stands out for me; they are all amazing feats. But the very fact that she’s always been grounded in her faith and clear in her calling inspires me.

“Hannah went into politics without knowing what politics was about. She portrayed obedience to chase after God.”

But Heidy also had her doubts about politics: she only agreed to join the DAP after being approached twice.

“The first time, I had confirmations but they didn’t come with peace. There was a lot of support from friends, but I felt God was saying ‘not yet’,” she says. She spent a year thinking about her decision before agreeing to join politics after she felt peace. She hopes to “elevate the voice of refugees”, influence policies that would protect refugees and migrant workers, and address issues of human trafficking, child abuse and child marriage.

Asked about her advice for young people, she says it boils down to following God’s call. “Find your identity in Christ and understand where your worth lies. Know your why. Many of us get so caught up chasing what the world wants, instead of asking God what He wants us to do,” she says.

“Catch on the urgency to do more for Christ. Don’t wait until Sunday; there’s so much more we can do. You’re never too young to make a difference.”

3 Reasons I Welcome Refugees (And 3 Ways You Can, Too)

Written By Janel Breitenstein, USA

Did you know nearly one in 100 people worldwide are displaced from their homes?

Refugees have become so much more than an Associated Press photo in my mind and my heart. For three years, I taught students at a refugee center in Uganda. I’ve played sports, shared meals, and exchanged emails and Facebook posts with them, and helped them develop products for their businesses. They’ve also shared their cooking with me, and hung out with my kids. Our kids have even played tag together.

The refugees are among some of the most resilient individuals I’ve ever met. They are courageous strugglers and hard workers.

They have so much to offer.


Why I Welcome Refugees

While my husband’s and my work has taken me away from the center, I still work diligently to welcome refugees into my own life here in America. Here’s why:


1. Refugees give back

I’ll be honest with you: Some of my students had never sat in a classroom prior to their seat at the refugee center. Their nations had been at unrest for too long. If you’re trying to stay alive, you usually aren’t sitting in school.

In Kampala, Uganda, I instructed in stuffy classrooms full of eager adult refugees from eight African nations. Many of these students, as adults, were learning to read for the first time. They were adjusting to a new culture and so many new ways of doing things. At least one of our Western-style bathrooms at the center had a printed poster: Please don’t stand on the seats. They were all learning English, business skills like computing or sewing or baking, and health skills.

And here’s what’s happened: In Kampala, 21 percent of refugees owned a business that employed other people—and 40 percent  of those employees were Ugandan nationals. Experts at Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre looked at the situation in Uganda and called it “exceptional.” Though welcoming refugees into a developing nation is different from welcoming them into more developed  nations, experts concluded that when refugees are given the right to work and freedom of movement, “the results are extraordinary, both for the refugees and the host community.”

Not only that, but God has used refugee crises the world over to bring people into a relationship with Himself. Not only have I heard stories of Middle Eastern refugees converting to Christianity, but I have read of a revival in Danish churches caused by Iranian refugees seeking Jesus. These are only a small representation of the beauty God is working worldwide as God blesses not only the refugees—but blesses through the refugees.


2. God loves refugees

I believe the need that is before us, and God’s words about refugees, are too great for me to turn a blind eye. According to the UN in 2014, every 4.1 seconds, someone becomes a refugee or is internally displaced. 41 per cent of refugees are under 18.

If these stats scare you a bit, know that the chances of being killed by a refugee-turned-terrorist are actually one in 3.64 billion. (For perspective, your chances of being killed by a cow are greater; they kill 20 people per year.)

From personal experience, I understand exquisitely that taking in refugees is not always comfortable or safe. This was crystallized for me when refugees from Rwanda stayed with my family. As her toddler ran around without a diaper, as the smell of the liver she was frying filled my kitchen, as we strategized on how to help her find a job, I mulled over Isaiah 58.

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice. . . ? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

God must have known exactly what He was asking of us in these questions.

The promises immediately following these two verses were also staggering: “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.” (Isaiah 58:8-9)

I think these promises mean that not only would God reward us, but He would also change us as we take these burdens as our own. His heart would mold ours as we, like he did for us, welcome those who cannot immediately repay us.



3. Refugees change me

It is true: I am indelibly different. It continues to push my family from a we-give-all-our-old-clothes-to-Goodwill kind of generous, more toward His I-give-until-it-hurts-and-then-I-keep-going kind of generous. The needs are too great, the differences in our circumstances too vast, the faces in my mind too vivid and personal. I can no longer elbow “the poor” to the edges of my mind.

David’s words, when trying to stay a plague on Israel, still haunt my mind: “I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24). If God is passionate about the poor and their injustice—this God who came to preach good news to the poor, to set prisoners free—can I be content to throw them my old clothes?

So, since I have returned to America, I have determined that the poor should receive a generous slice of my time, my passion, my energy, my budget, even my career. In a land that is prosperous to the point of obesity (and I don’t exclude myself from this)—though I cannot hear the physical voices of refugees—I never want to forget them.

I will advocate for them, tell their stories, and sign petitions. My family will give generously. I will help the poor among me, wherever they are from. I will thank the Middle Eastern woman beside me in Arabic, offering her a kind smile. I will invite the Hispanic immigrant’s son over to play with mine, and I will tell them how thankful I am that they are a part of my community.

Refugees and I have far more in common than I thought. A friend recently reposted R. C. Sproul Jr.’s wise words: “If the lesson you get from Jesus hanging with sinners is you should hang more with sinners, you’re confused on who you are in the story.” And I continue to return to David Platt’s words on adoption—that we adopt not because we are the rescuers, but because we are the rescued.

Jesus took me when I was an alien—not just an alien, an enemy—and made me His daughter. He gave me liberty, skills, purpose, a future, a home. He gave me love. And really that—He—is why I welcome refugees.



How You Can Welcome Refugees

“Um. . . I’m not even sure I know any refugees. So what can I do?”

I’ll echo some of the suggestions from “A Sane Approach to the Refugee Crisis,” an article published in Christianity Today.


1. Intentionally, strategically love on refugees

One friend of mine, out jogging in America, felt a niggling to reach out to a pair of refugee women she ran by every day, whose children also went to her daughter’s school. When she did stop and talk with them, she found that one’s eyes were filled with tears; in light of the climate toward refugees, they were too afraid to walk alone. As the Church, we have a tremendous opportunity to care for these bereft families.

Refugees sometimes need help with the most basic services in our communities, like medical appointments or navigating paperwork; others would love help with English, reading, or job skills. Before we left for Uganda, my husband and 5-year-old distributed Christmas gifts to refugees.

What refugee communities live in your area? (Perhaps your church is already connected!) You’re a Google search away from finding organizations already helping those near you. And if you’re freaked out about the language barrier, remember that kindness can be expressed through simple service; through washing someone’s feet in any form.


2. Donate

A practical way to help is by donating to vetted organizations who provide for refugees’ tangible needs—particularly career training. I’m partial to Refuge and Hope, because I see them helping refugees develop their God-given abilities and talents, empowering them to become vital, well-rounded, thriving members of a community. World Relief is one of the few organizations that have permission to help with resettling Syrian refugees in the U.S. There are many other organizations that are involved in refugee work. Spend some time reading up about these organizations and the work that they do, and support the ones that engage the causes that grab your heart and mind.


3. Pray for them

Perhaps this seems like a no-brainer—but even as I sit and type this, I realize how little I’ve prayed about the current crisis. Prayer is one of the most critical and powerful forms of loving the poor; of taking them and their needs into our hearts, lending our imaginations to their realities, and pleading for God’s intervention on their behalf. Pray that:

  • the Church will richly, sacrificially extend God’s love and protection
  • refugees will be led to Christ
  • refugees will be protected, and for the protection and wisdom of host countries
  • God will show you personally how to respond

I count over 70 references made by the Bible to foreigners and refugees. God identifies Himself as the God of the orphan, the widow, and the alien. I want us, too, as His followers, to be famous for this. Wanna help?

This article was originally published on the writer’s blog here. This version has been edited by YMI.