Volunteers speak

Doris Khoo, 18 and going strong

Doris Khoo, 18 and going strong

Almost two decades in service have opened up a hidden world of refugee camps in the rugged borderlands and outer reaches of Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand for long-time JRS volunteer, Doris Khoo.

Doris started volunteering with JRS in 2003, after the passing of her first husband and retiring from a career as a geography teacher, authoring textbooks and mentoring others who would shape future generations of Singaporeans. Mind you, she’s turning 75 in 2022.

What began as a maiden visit to a refugee camp in Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger territory in 2004, soon developed into an unwavering passion for accompanying and serving displaced persons. On many more trips to come, Doris would put her skills as an educator to good use, sowing seeds of empowerment. In more recent years, Doris also sought to raise awareness of and educate the refugees on human trafficking and exploitation with the help of Harvard fellow and women’s advocate, Ms Junko Yoda, a great supporter of JRS Singapore.

In 2017, Doris found herself in Myitkyina, capital city of Myanmar’s Kachin State, just 50 miles south of the border with China. “It’s a community that has been displaced. The fighting was still going on. There was a need to help train teachers because the schools in these communities were run by the displaced people, for their displaced children. And the teachers were young people, from 17 to their mid-20s,” described Doris.

“I was trying to get the teachers to get the children more involved in learning. You see, they learnt by rote. The teacher would say something and the kids would just chorus after them. So I put together a few teaching programmes on how to manage a class, how to get the children’s attention, and taught them techniques for group work so that they could get the children involved,” she shared.

As for the more established refugee communities, such as those in Thailand, it is a different school of fish. “Generations of children were born and bred in the camps there and cannot work anywhere. There are a lot of other problems. What do you do with young people growing up? How do you prevent them from getting into drugs, or being trafficked? It’s a different situation altogether,” said Doris, who spent time on these trips to the border areas of Thailand, in Mae Sot and the northern Shan and Lao areas, accompanying refugees.

“I don’t know where the future lies for the refugees but we can give them the skills they need to thrive,” she said. “Some of them have refugee status but that’s pretty much useless as repatriation to third countries are down to a trickle. Nobody is giving them a passage to a new life. Education is the key, so that when they’re ready to go, they can fly without being left behind because they were refugees.”

“This is where I think that internet education and the ability to work online are going to be an opportunity for them,” Doris added, citing recent examples of the digital learning and internship initiatives offered through the LEAP@JRS programme.

Among Doris’ biggest highlights from 18 years of volunteering are journeying with people and being touched by their generosity. “We think we’re giving them stuff. No, they give us you know, and the refugees teach us so many things,” Doris mused.

She added, “The refugees have nothing, and yet they would give us everything. They would be eating leaves and beans or vegetables that they grow. And yet when you come, they would kill their only chicken and give it to you. And they’re not angry because of the situation. They are just happy to see you, happy that people remember them. And when you leave, they actually tell you ‘Don’t forget us.’”

“Volunteering with the refugees is a very rewarding job. There are no limits. Everybody can do it because anybody can accompany,” Doris urged. “All you need to do is to give the time of day, and realise that we’re all the same, we are all children of God.”