'Art Rocks Us': The creative minds behind exhibition that empowers refugees in Malaysia

'Art Rocks Us': The creative minds behind exhibition that empowers refugees in Malaysia

Building future-proof partnerships and reigniting creative sparks through the power of art.

There is a lot to be said about being surrounded by people with whom you share a natural affinity and similar values. While the succour from grounded friendships can feel reassuring, finding companions who fan the fervent flame of your ambition is quite the rarity. All the more so if they decide to embark on an exciting journey with you.

The rapport between Deborah Henry, Ashleigh Cotterill and Sharon Abdullah is effortless and jocular, with a witty remark or two thrown in at the end of each other’s sentences. But when it comes to talking about their line of work, there is a seriousness that settles upon their countenance and a readiness that adds gravity to the trio’s presence.

Henry is the founder of Fugee School, an academic learning centre dedicated to educating refugee children in Malaysia. Established in 2009, it started as a small tuition centre seeking to provide lessons in basic Mathematics and English to a handful of Somali children. Since then, the non-profit organisation has grown into a full-fledged school that offers equitable access to quality education and holistic support to more than 200 students a year. Hundreds of bright minds, most of whom spend their formative years in transit in Malaysia, have passed through the doors of Fugee while awaiting resettlement. The goal is to equip them with appropriate academic, creative and life skills so they can be empowered to realise their potential.

Cotterill, the founder of Tea Bird Tea, is an entrepreneur through and through. She began by selling herb and vegetable seeds in farmers’ markets while living in Australia. That eventually led to the idea of making tea out of the leaves to reap their health benefits. She set out to source organic herbs, roots and spices from around the world to create premium quality blends and established her brand in Malaysia after moving here. If you are curious about the moniker, it was derived from one of Cotterill’s paintings. An artist herself, she designed Tea Bird Tea’s striking packaging, which is hard to miss whenever one browses the supermarket aisles of Cold Storage or Mercato.

Art Rocks Us Tea Bird Tea Fugee School

Sharon, the vice-chair of Angsanacare, also shares a similar passion for art and implements it in her non-governmental organisation. Angsanacare provides a full range of professional psychological support services through art, music and play therapy to paediatric patients who are chronically or severely ill in the oncology, neurology, respiratory, nephrology and ICU wards. Its care services also extend to the entire family where possible. The staff work with stakeholders who are invested in the mental healthcare of marginalised and vulnerable children in Malaysia as well.

During the pandemic, Cotterill and Sharon founded Brand Me Happy, an art-centred agency that offers solutions to businesses looking to get creative with their concepts, branding and design. One conversation led to another and the trio decided to band together on a project that would bring their passions — art, children, education, enterprise and empowerment — to the forefront.

“When I started my own brand, I’d always wanted to create something with a strong CSR (corporate social responsibility) focus,” says Cotterill. “When I met Deborah, it was kind of perfect.”

For the past few years, Tea Bird Tea has supported Fugee in many ways, including donating RM1 for every pack of tea sold in Malaysia to the school as well as featuring the students’ drawings on their printed products.

“We get on very well,” Cotterill continues. “I want to achieve change by utilising my corporate and business skills and she [Henry] does it through education and from a humanitarian point of view.”

“We’re trying to change the way CSR or charity is done,” Henry adds. “How do you do it in ways that are more sustainable and long term? We are a non-profit and for-profit coming together.”

Dream School Art Rocks Us

“It’s very trendy for people to do short collaborations and have a photograph taken of them handing money over,” Cotterill chimes in. “But something I’m particularly interested in exploring is how we look at the company structure to help its people help themselves.”

For the past six months, Tea Bird Tea and Brand Me Happy have worked with Fugee to help them reinvent their business model by restructuring their operations, changing their communication focus and building new commercial platforms to make it easier for the school to connect with donors and other businesses. A good example of the latter is Art Rocks Us, a month-long collaborative showcase between the trio’s organisations that features around 150 artworks by students from Fugee, kids and adults with ADHD and other mental health issues from Angsanacare, selected refugee artists as well as Cotterill and Sharon themselves.

More than just an exhibition aimed at raising funds, Art Rocks Us is also a platform where corporates can build partnerships and discuss CSR opportunities with the organisations involved. Businesses are welcomed to reach out and meetings can be arranged upon request.

“We’re also arranging mini high-tea events. So, if you’d like to bring 20 friends and have a guided tour, you can make an afternoon of it,” says Henry. “Fugee is using the space for some of our events as well.” (They will be organising a ceremony for the school’s university scholarship programme.)

But what can one expect to see at the exhibition?

“It is like a blast of colours with exciting different sculptures,” Sharon depicts. “It stimulates all your senses and is very interactive.”

Visitors can leave their creative mark on a big canvas and shed the thought of being in a formal and stuffy environment. In this space, all forms of expression are embraced and such is exemplified by the vivid artworks displayed.

“Everybody needs an outlet,” Sharon continues, after pondering how art has aided her work with children and their mental health. “Art can be an outlet for how you express yourself.”

Kids Art Art Rocks Us

But what happens when a child loses his or her sense of wonder? To be prematurely disenchanted from the fascination of life is a dejecting topic to talk about.

“There’s a story I always tell,” Henry reveals. “When we first started the school, I gave the children a piece of paper and crayons, and asked them to draw whatever they wanted on it. And for an hour, the kids just sat there staring at the blank pieces of paper. They weren’t able to express themselves. And, you know, my takeaway was that these kids are alive, they are here in Malaysia, they’re safe within reason, but their imaginations were dead. And I guess our task at Fugee is to figure out how to get them to start dreaming again.”

It was this memory, coupled with thoughts about the future, which sparked the idea for the Fugee Dream School, an expansion plan to offer better learning experiences and increase the student intake. Those who want to support Fugee’s next chapter can contribute through the Giving Catalogue on fugee.org or by purchasing Tea Bird Tea’s selected teabag packs (RM50 from every pack will be donated to Fugee). A special art piece that portrays the Dream School is showcased at the exhibition.

“This piece really represents that crazy imaginative side of the students thinking about what that school could look like,” Henry smiles in reminiscence. “Regardless of who we are and where we come from, everyone has potential in them. Whether you realise it, see it, cultivate it and have opportunities, that’s the difference between all of us, right? Everyone has the right to these opportunities in life. And what each makes of them, that’s up to them.”

Sharon hopes visitors will walk out of the exhibition inspired and excited, perhaps even take up a hobby that allows them to be creative and benefits them. For Cotterill, it is promoting the entrepreneurial spirit in youths and showing them what it would feel like to work for themselves. Henry wants people to see and experience how art talks about the society in which we live.

From education and empowerment to independence, the trio is laying the groundwork brick by brick to bring social change to the youth of tomorrow and help them realise their potential. But perhaps the most important lesson is playing our part in making the world a kinder, less sorrowful place. Not a bad resolution to make for 2023, we think.


Read more

Afternoon Tea Etiquette

Afternoon Tea Etiquette

Tea Bird Tea Available in Tokyo Japan

Tea Bird Tea Launches at the British Fair in Tokyo!

Herbal Teas or Tisanes

Herbal Teas or Tisanes


Be the first to comment.