Iskul is a community-run project that was initiated in 2015 to provide basic literacy for stateless children at Omadal Island in Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia. The word ‘Iskul’ means ‘school’ in the Bajau Laut language of stateless children. Iskul’s vision is to build young leaders among the stateless and local communities through holistic education. We will reach this by fostering inclusivity among communities with and without nationality, and bringing out the voices of the stateless and marginalised communities.

Current Conditions of the Children in Omadal Island

The majority of the 156 stateless households in Omadal live in destitute living conditions. They lack basic amenities like food, clean water, electricity, sanitation, and medical access. Their children suffer malnutrition and many resort to begging tourists for food or money [2][5]. Recently, while sending food relief during the MCO [18], we took the opportunity to also conduct an informal census. It has brought us further insights into the dire needs of the community. The census reveals that about 62% of the families earn less than RM10 a day, and 23% earn between RM11 to RM20 a day [2]. Almost half of the households cramped 6 to 10 family members in a stilted-house or boathouse. Their daily diet consists of only rice, tapioca, and any catch of the day daily [ibid].

Their children are part of the 50,000 undocumented children in Sabah as reported by Aljazeera in 2016 [3]. The Unicef estimated these ‘invisible’ children at 18,781 [4]. The children are stateless because of both their undocumented parents [2][5]. For generations, their families resided in the water of Semporna. They roamed the Sulu Sea as subsistence fishermen since before the creation of borders and nations [5]. Due to their nomadic lifestyle, many missed the Malaysian citizenship registration in 1969 [ibid]. While some fled the armed conflict in Southwestern Mindanao in the 1970s to seek refuge in Sabah [5][6]. Most have lost their UNHCR refugees passes or IMM13 passes issued by the Sabah Immigration, Kad Burung issued by the Chief Minister’s office, and Surat Lepa-lepa issued by the Panglima [ibid]. Hence resulting in their predicament – undocumented and stateless
The stateless Bajau Laut children inherited poverty from their parents. Impoverished. Malnourished. Stateless. Without documents, they are bound in Omadal, risking detention if they leave. They live in fear daily. They also stay illiterate, unable to enrol in school. There are about 200 of them aged between four to sixteen who should be in school. But can’t. They are timid, feel inferior and lack self-esteem. A result of systemic and cultural discrimination, especially of their different way of life, in particular the basic hygiene. Without intervention, these children and generations to come will remain in the statelessness poverty cycle forever.

How We Help

We give the opportunity of education to children and youth whose stateless status denies them access to public schools. Outside the classroom, we feed our students nutritious meals and teach them basic hygiene practices to give them the energy and personal care they need to reach their academic and leadership potential. Often we also find ourselves in a bridging role between the stateless communities and government agents, helping to smooth communication gaps and cultural misperceptions on both sides.

Highlights and Milestones

1. Establishing a permanent home – In 2016 we welcomed ‘Pondok Iskul’ our new school building that provides a safe environment for students to learn and socialise. 

Prior to Pondok Iskul, lessons were often conducted haphazardly in makeshift spaces including house corridors and walkways. Establishing a permanent base solidified our presence in the community and enabled us to commit to the long-term training and development of students. 

2. Providing frontline covid-19 emergency relief – We mobilised the Malaysian public, foundations and corporations to support Bajau Laut families who were neglected by conventional relief efforts during the height of the covid-19 pandemic in April and October 2020.  

Together, we collected and distributed food and medical aid to 158 Bajau Laut and 54 Malaysian households respectively, helping to ease income loss and social isolation caused by pandemic lockdowns. 

This collective effort is a proud achievement for Iskul; not only did we rally support for Bajau Laut families and raise awareness of their plight among the broader society, we did so with extremely limited manpower working under severely restrictive movement control orders. Being inclusive, our core belief, paid off in ensuring stateless people were not neglected during the covid-19 pandemic.

3. Initiating community healthcare – In 2020 we jump-started our maternity and children’s health programme and the community water access project. These two milestones reinforce our holistic approach to education: that students can achieve their academic potential when they and their families are healthy and secure. 

Since the launch of the health programme, which was supported by a Yayasan Hasanah Special Grant 2020, we have distributed health supplements to 20 pregnant and new mothers, monitored their progress, and taught them to manage health. This initiative made a world of difference to the mothers as most have limited exposure to modern medicine and little understanding of the importance of nutrition to their unborn babies.  On top of this, we continue to provide nutritious meals to students 5 times a week. Our community water project eases hardships for Omadal households that have no reliable source of potable water. We installed water tanks to provide each family with access to a constant water supply, and are on our way to achieving 100% coverage of Omadal stateless households through a collaboration with Engineers Without Borders Malaysia. Investing in a healthy childhood for our future students with healthy, nutritious food and safe drinking water will help them to excel in the classroom.

Future Plans

In the next 2 years on top of sustaining our core literacy training and student meals, we have two targets. First, to strengthen Iskul’s youth leadership programme which will build confidence in children and youth. The programme will emphasize both the sciences and arts – the former by lessons focused on marine stewardship and life science, and the latter by teaching traditional and modern performance arts that students can use to express and take pride in their unique cultural identity. Iskul will also equip Bajau youth from Omadal with media production tools as a means to share their stories with the world and to earn extra income. We envision this will spark motivation and self-confidence in youth. Second, to foster a healthy community, including both human and environmental health. This vision involves improving water access for all households on Omadal Island and cultivating proper waste disposal behaviour to reduce health hazards and ocean pollution. We will also continue to take care of community health by bridging local health agency with stateless households to deliver medical aids and health education.