Obama meets refugee children and youths in Malaysia, calls on U.S. to welcome the 'forgotten'

Kuala Lumpur, 25 November 2015 – U.S President Barack Obama on Saturday took time out of a hectic official visit to Malaysia to meet a group of young refugees who had recently completed the process of being resettled in the US, and to talk with children attending a learning centre for underprivileged and refugee children in Kuala Lumpur.

Obama said they were deserving of the world's protection and support. He said that these children have gone through extraordinary hardships to find safety, and that they are “just like our kids. They deserve love, protection, stability, and an education.”

There are some 33,000 refugee children in Malaysia who have no legal status in the country.

In a private closed-door meeting, Obama sat with seven youths who were awaiting departure to the US under the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, resettlement programme.

“I just had an incredible conversation with the young men and women around this table who represent refugees from Myanmar and Sudan and from Somalia. These are some of the bravest, hardest-working individuals that you’ll ever meet,” said Obama.

Obama said American leadership is caring for people who have been forgotten, discriminated against, tortured, faced unspeakable violence, or who have been separated from families at very young ages.

“This is who we want to help. This is the face of people all around the world who still look to the United States as a beacon of hope.”

The US, he said, would remain open to refugees as long as he remained in office. "As long as I'm president, we are going to keep on stepping up," he said.

Obama arrived in Malaysia on Friday to attend the 3rd Asean-US Summit as well as the 10th East Asia Summit in conjunction with the 27th Asean Summit.

During the visit to the learning centre, Obama spent about 20 minutes in a classroom with ten children, aged between seven and nine, who were wearing crisp white and black school uniforms, sitting at tables and working on art projects and puzzles. This learning centre is run by the Dignity for Children Foundation and supported by UNHCR, and serves underprivileged children, including refugees who are mostly of Rohingya ethnicity from Myanmar.

Obama spoke to the children about their classes and favourite subjects, their ambitions, and offered encouraging words.

“That's the face of not only refugees from Myanmar, that's the face of Syrian children, and Iraqi children, and children from war-torn regions of Sudan,” said Obama.

He refuted fears that Muslim refugees brought with them the threat of terrorism, saying that the children he met were "the opposite of terror, the opposite of the type of despicable violence we saw in Mali and Paris."

Obama also acknowledged Malaysia's efforts to welcome and support refugees around the world. Malaysia currently hosts over 154,000 refugees and asylum-seekers from countries including Sudan, Somalia and Myanmar, he said. 

Due to their illegal status, refugee children have no access to public schools in Malaysia and UNHCR supports some 126 learning centres run by refugees and NGOs to provide education programmes for refugee children.

© UNHCR 2001 - 2011