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A champion of people: Heidy Quah, refugee rights advocate and activist, on faith, work and finding herself again

“How I came to know Christ was really a handpicked moment by God,” Heidy Quah said.

The 28-year-old Malaysian is the founder and executive director of Refuge for the Refugees (RFTR), an NGO involved in advocacy, education, healthcare and economic opportunities for refugee children and their families.

RFTR runs 35 refugee schools in Malaysia and Myanmar, supporting 3,700 children.

In addition to running RFTR, Heidy is a project manager with Pinkcollar Employment Agency, a social enterprise providing ethical recruitment services for domestic helpers. She’s also an associate adjunct professor at Taylor’s Lakeside University and supervisor to a PhD candidate at the Australia Catholic University.

For her efforts, Heidy was the first Malaysian woman to receive the Queen’s Young Leader Award in 2017. She was also a recipient of the Women of the Future Southeast Asia Award (Community Spirit and Public Service) in 2020.

Her stories and experiences seem larger than life for someone so young, who as a schoolgirl, began pondering the problems she saw and wondering if she could make a change.

“Many of my close friends were debaters, and they were always talking about current issues,” Heidy shared.

“The conversations always ended with, “Oh, the government’s not doing enough. Organisations are not doing enough.” And I looked at myself, sitting in my social privilege bubble with my nasi lemak and milo ais, talking about how people were not doing enough. But what was I doing about it?”

Heidy Quah, activist and advocate for refugees, shares candidly about finding the balance between faith, work and creating space to breathe.

Handpicked by God

Heidy was born into a Buddhist family but came to know Jesus Christ at 12 years old. Her friends had invited her to a children’s holiday camp run by a church. She remembers joining in the fun and games but disengaging during the sermon time.

However, during one of the evening sessions, while she sat doodling away, the young girl suddenly felt God’s presence.

“It’s strange, right? Because I didn’t know what [God’s presence] felt like. And suddenly, people started standing up. A salvation call had been made, but I thought they were asking who the first-timers at camp are, so I stood up too,” she remembered with a laugh.

An aunty came up and led the rather confused Heidy in the salvation prayer, but that was how Heidy came to know Jesus Christ. “It was truly a handpicked moment because I don’t think I would have come to Christ then at that age, but that changed everything for me,” she said.

After becoming a Christian, the young girl approached the faith as she would any task.

“With my perfectionist and can-do-no-wrong mentality, I just felt like I had to read the Bible every day. So I would sit on the couch and read the Bible aloud to my parents, attacking it like I would a history textbook.”

A secure identity

Heidy’s newfound relationship with God shifted her perspective on life in many ways. The youngest of three children, she had grown up protected and in her older siblings’ shadows. Shy and soft-spoken, Heidy faced bullying in school.

She was told to toughen up and she did, seeking affirmation and value from others. Through her formative years, she did whatever it took to have friends, even if it meant being a bully herself.

“But going into secondary school having found Christ made a difference,” she said. “I didn’t feel the need to be one of those cool kids anymore. I had a lot more peace staying in my own lane and doing my own thing and that’s how I started RTFR.”

Her secondary school years also became a training ground for her faith. Her involvement in church did not always sit well with her parents, who felt she should focus more on her studies.

But those early years taught Heidy discipline and how to fight for her faith. More importantly, that season showed her God’s heart and where her worth truly lies.

Holding nothing back

Heidy’s first foray into refugee work was as a volunteer English teacher at a refugee school in Kuala Lumpur. It opened her eyes to the plight of refugees in Malaysia (the country is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention).

“Can you tell I really like kids?” Heidy said. She works closely with families and children in education, healthcare and well-being projects.

When she found out the school would be closing down due to a lack of funding, Heidy and schoolmate Andrea Prisha went door-to-door selling food and using social media to raise funds. The two youngsters managed to keep the school open for another six months.

Having seen the reality on the ground, the duo started RFTR in 2012. They were 16 years old. Working in such close proximity to the refugee community opened her eyes to the possibilities. “When they are supported to realise their potential, they can do so much more,” she said passionately.

RFTR works with refugees by providing education, hardware and soft skills training. They also run a kedai runcit (mini-mart) in a community and do urban farming.

On a day-to-day basis, the organisation supports refugee schools as well as individual refugee and migrant cases. It also partners with clinics to provide quality healthcare and has plans to set up a daycare centre for refugee children below five years old.

After secondary school, Heidy studied Accounting and Finance at university while running the organisation. At the same time, she was holding several leadership positions in her church.

But as the responsibilities kept piling up, the young woman found herself struggling to hold it all together.

Choosing every day to keep going

In 2017, Heidy was in London, waiting to receive the Queen’s Young Leader Award from Queen Elizabeth II herself.

“At what was supposed to be the highest point in my life, I was bawling my eyes out from the pressure in the waiting room. The external pressure just really got to me,” she said.

Heidy (left) receiving the Queen’s Young Leader Award for her work with refugees from Queen Elizabeth II in 2017. She was the first Malaysian woman to receive the award.

Since RFTR began in 2012, Heidy had been thrown into the spotlight. While her work with refugees was often praised, she also faced harassment, bullying and harsh criticism by keyboard warriors. There have been threats of rape, and even murder.

“The work is really, really hard. It’s waking up every day and choosing to keep serving. Needs are never-ending, and I have to face the harsh reality of scary DMs in my inbox, even death threats,” she said.

The young woman recounts an experience trying to manage a human trafficking case. A Filipino migrant woman’s young daughter had been kidnapped (girls under two years old are prime targets for human trafficking) and Heidy went to the police station to make a report.

“Instead, I ended up being questioned at the station for eight hours, passed from one investigating officer to the other. They were asking me why I was getting involved and mixing myself up in this case. At the time, I was only 21 years old. It was traumatic for me,” she said.

The mix of childhood experiences and cumulative trauma of dealing with brutal suicide, rape and sex trafficking cases eventually became too much for her, and she cracked.

No shame in seeking help

At the end of her rope, Heidy wanted to seek professional help for her mental health.

But she had to get consent from the leaders of the church she was in at the time, and they did not support the idea of seeking counsel outside the church. “I was told, I need to pray more. I need to have stronger faith to guard my heart. I wasn’t even questioning my faith then, but their responses made me spiral into, “Am I not obedient enough, not praying enough?”

After a while, she decided to move on from that church because she didn’t want to hide the fact that she was seeking help. For the past few years, she has been meeting with her therapist every week.

Therapy, she said, has helped her to process her trauma, reshuffle her priorities, guard her boundaries and importantly, build and maintain good friendships.

“I have incredible friends. My work gets the best of me, and often all they get are the leftovers. But they are people who love me for who I am. And I’m always so encouraged by the supporters of our work, from aunties making porridge to luxury car brands like BMW Malaysia offering their vehicles to ferry food aid to our communities,” she said.

Finally, Heidy is finding the space once again to breathe.

Having found the time to invest in good friendships, Heidy is grateful to be surrounded by supportive and authentic friends.

Serving in a trauma-informed church

“Christianity is all about a deep, personal relationship with God. God is always good. It’s man who makes the faith what it isn’t. Man has failed me, but God hasn’t,” Heidy declared.

Her journey with the Church has not been easy. After leaving her previous church in 2017, she attended another KL church for several years. It was a season of rest as she battled mental health struggles, and with renewed strength, she began serving again.

Things were going well until she was charged in June 2020 by the authorities. Heidy was charged with the intent to insult others over a Facebook posting alleging the mistreatment of refugees at an immigration detention centre.

The charge shook her, but what affected her deeply was when her church leadership asked those close to her to distance themselves to avoid being implicated.

It shook her because it was also the time she was most vulnerable and had needed the strength of support from her community.

“The church had to back away because of fear, and I think that’s my constant struggle,” she said. After some time, she chose to leave in search of a church she could regain a sense of belonging in.

Today, Heidy worships and is part of the founding team at The Journey KL, a church established by Mike and Viola Wu on the belief that everyone can encounter Jesus in a safe, trauma-informed space.

The Journey KL is a church where she hopes to equip and journey along with others to embrace genuine social justice and responsibility; it has hosted a few Supper Clubs, where refugees cook a meal from their country and share their experiences.

A growing community: The Journey KL’s Christmas Celebration in 2022.

Consistency and faith

Asked what her plans moving forward are, Heidy answers simply, “My plan is just to be consistent in what I do.” This a wise answer from an advocate who has learned (the hard way) that more isn’t always necessarily better.

“I used to have really big, lavish plans, chasing numbers. We’ve been at 35 schools for a while now, and I’ve stopped feeling the need to push for more schools. Instead, how do I improve the quality of my work, not just increase the quantity?”

The shift did not happen overnight, but Heidy is quick to credit God for taking her through what has been a roller-coaster season.

“If it wasn’t for my faith, I wouldn’t be doing what I am today. Just understanding God’s heart inspires me to live out my faith, having experienced the weight of His love, grace and mercy in my own life,” she said.

A champion of people

Heidy Quah has come a long way. From an ambitious schoolgirl who gave her heart and soul to refugee communities in Malaysia, she has now learned to discover God’s heart for her.

She’s learning to be an advocate, yet allow others to advocate for her. A friend to all, but family to some. As she said, the needs are never ending and every day is a choice to serve.

But she has experienced the joy of being obedient to God and then being blown away by how He shows up.

Her identity is found in Christ. She believes it is the only way she can stay true to the calling of God upon her life in serving refugee and migrant communities around her.

“I want to be a fierce advocate for people. I want to have deep compassion. I want to stand by communities even when the going gets tough. Micah 6:8 is that reminder for me. How do I live my life in a way that balances justice and compassion, and not back down in the face of adversity? This is my journey,” she reflected.

Our time is almost up, and we close with a question about her purpose in life. Heidy doesn’t hesitate. She believes her purpose is to be somebody who makes everybody feel like a somebody. “A champion of people, that’s how I want to be remembered,” she said.

A champion of people: Heidy hopes to live purposefully and to create real impact in all she does.

This article was first published on Salt&Light.

All photos provided by Heidy Quah.

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