People who know Hasan describe him as lively, bright and engaging. “If you’re ever in a room with him, he just stands out. He’s always full of energy, he tells jokes and he’s always smiling”.
Life was happy and peaceful for twelve year-old Hasan Al-Akraa and his family in the small village of Hretaan, in Aleppo, Syria. Hasan’s father, whom he calls Yub, used to work in the neighbouring city of Damascus as a construction worker, about five hours away by bus. Then everything changed in 2011.
“There were whispers of war spreading from one place to another. We feared that it might reach Aleppo soon. Back then, I did not fully understand what ‘war’ or ‘state-sponsored violence’ meant; all I remember is a sense of apprehension and fear.”
One day, his mom was reading him and his four siblings a story on the rooftop of their house when suddenly fireballs appeared in the sky. The entire family stood petrified as they witnessed the massive balls of flame flying into the neighbouring village. In horror and confusion, they scrambled downstairs to their basement for protection.
“We couldn’t sleep because of the continuous sounds of bomb explosions. The next morning we found out that the village right next to us was completely destroyed. That is when Yub decided that we should leave Hretaan.”
They decided to seek asylum in Malaysia because they had friends there whom they had met in Damascus in 2005. It wasn’t an easy decision; nor was it cheap. Hasan’s father had to spend most of his life savings on the flight tickets. But it was choosing life or death; so they embarked on their journey to Malaysia.
“The journey from Aleppo to Damascus was horrific and dangerous. It was such a surreal experience passing through Homs and Hama and witnessing two of the once most lively and bright towns reduced to rubbles due to heavy bombardment.
The airport was full of people, all trying to flee to unknown places, with terrified and frightened faces. I had no idea where Malaysia was on the map, all I knew was that we were going to a place with no bombs and snipers, no dead bodies and no children screaming.”
“We landed in Kuala Lumpur on the first day of Ramadan. We stayed with our friends, the Malaysian couple, for two weeks and later moved out into our own apartment with some assistance from the UNHCR. We didn’t have many opportunities for formal schooling because public schools wouldn’t let refugees in and we couldn’t afford private schools. One public school, out of sympathy, did let us come in and sit quietly at the back of the classroom everyday. But we could hardly understand anything because of the language barrier. We felt like misfits. Some of our classmates treated us like outsiders and we were severely bullied and abused. Out of frustration and humiliation, we decided to leave the school and I replaced my elder brother at the kebab stall he worked at, in one of the cafeterias at University Islam Antarabangsa, in 2013.”
Working there wasn’t easy. He was fourteen and had no experience with cooking or dealing with customers. In order to better communicate with the local and international customers in the university, Hasan learned Malay as well as English while working from 10 am to 10 pm everyday.
“One day, a huge truck stopped outside the restaurant and some men walked in. One of them asked for my personal identification and I handed him my UNHCR card. They were immigration law officers. Before I could understand anything, me and the other foriegn workers were arrested. We were taken to an immigration office building in Putrajaya and our thumb prints were taken.”
“A female officer asked me my age and when I told her I was fourteen, she slapped me so hard that I immediately broke into tears. It was the pain of humiliation that caused those tears, not the pain of the slap. I couldn’t understand why I deserved that punishment. I couldn’t understand why it was wrong to help my family.”
Under Malaysian law, refugees and asylum seekers are considered “illegal or undocumented immigrants”. Malaysia is one of the countries that have not yet signed the United Nations Refugee Convention in 1951 which grants refugees legal rights to work in the host country.
After a long wait in the immigration office at Putrajaya, they were taken on another journey at 10 PM. This time, to the horror of the 14 year old Hasan, the destination was a jail cell. He spent nine days in that cell, with 20 other people, all of them refugees. In prison, he made friends with three Rohingya refugees, young boys barely teenagers, who inspired him to engage in activism for refugees.
Hasan describes the first three days in prison as being the most dark, the lowest he’s ever felt in his entire life. But eventually, he found comfort and friendship in the Rohingya boys. Hasan and the boys found a way to communicate with each through gestures and sounds. Each one narrated their story in sign language while Hasan intently tried to comprehend the meaning. One of the boys’ father was killed in front of his eyes in Burma and his mother sent him away on a boat to Malaysia to save him from persecution. But, the moment he reached the shore, he was arrested and detained. The other boy had his house and family shop destroyed and travelled in a boat for 9 days to get to Malaysia only to be detained.
“The anxiety and hopelessness in prison was paralyzing. I wished if there was a knife there I would just kill myself.”
When he was finally released after nine long days, after what seemed like an eternity, “I fell on my knees and slowly put my forehead to the ground, thanking Allah”. The sunlight seemed to bring joy to his heart after that long mental torture in the darkness of prison. When he got home, he learned that his brother had also been taken away by the authorities on the same day. He was detained for twenty days during which time he was beaten as well. They were both deeply traumatised by the experience, and Hasan vowed never to return to work.
Soon after the incident, however, Hasan’s father lost his job and Hasan was forced to search for employment to keep the family going. Hasan came to know about a local NGO, Cybercare, which provided assistance and vocational training opportunities to Syrian refugees. They needed an interpreter and Hasan signed up.
“Even though the salary wasn’t much, the satisfaction of helping other refugees was immense. Gradually I became more involved with the NGO. I started working at a school for refugees, established by the same NGO. Most of the children were Syrian and I felt immense joy in giving them the gift of education.”
Cybercare’s motto is “Every child has a dream, and every child has a right to fulfil that dream”. And Hasan believes in that motto.
“I always tell my students that your future must be better than my future.”
In 2016, he started his own organization called Al-Hasan Volunteer Network (AHVN) with the aim of inspiring youth to volunteer and do charity work through community projects. It started with a handful of volunteers and slowly grew into an organization with more than 400 volunteers engaging in a multitude of projects. Today, his network has reached more than 10 underprivileged communities in Malaysia.
“My main aim is to raise awareness about the reality of refugees, not just in Malaysia, but worldwide.”
“Refugees are being misrepresented as people who are useless and unqualified but the reality is most of them are highly educated and they have hopes and dreams, and ambition and ability to accomplish. They don’t need money or food, they need an opportunity for them to earn a living.”
People usually have mixed attitudes towards refugees. Some are welcoming but others are hostile. They believe that refugees are a burden, living off of taxes paid by the hardworking population of the host country. There is a common perception that refugees are poor, uneducated and low-skilled and will always remain so. Apart from highlighting the negative attitudes and false biases towards refugees, Hasan wants to address the core problems refugees face including no access to public healthcare and education as well as no right to legal employment.
“There are many refugees who were engineers and doctors back home but they end up being waiters in restaurants. Some were highly qualified individuals in their countries; they had their own business, their own offices, their cars and houses. And all of that was destroyed in a few seconds. It’s all gone and they have ended up in a foreign land with no means to use their talents and skills.”
“Instead of giving us fish, teach us how to fish and allow us to fish”. Give refugees opportunities, not aid, that’s what Hasan believes.
Most refugees come from less developed countries but they are also able to contribute to society like everyone, if given an opportunity. Many refugees have changed the world and have made a difference in the lives of millions of people. Albert Einstein was a refugee, Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, was a refugee too. Refugees are not necessarily an economic and social burden. They can contribute and bring positive change if given the chance, and Hasan is a good example of this.
After many refugee families lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Al-Hasan Volunteer Network started a food distribution drive for more than 1300 refugee families, supplying daily groceries and even Eid clothes for 100 families!
“When businesses were forced to close because of the Covid-19 pandemic, these refugees lost their only source of income and we knew we had to help ease their burden.”
When he’s not busy running his volunteer network, twenty year old Hasan Al-Akraa spends his time studying for his undergraduate degree, on full scholarship, from Nottingham University Malaysia. His ambition is to become an educator and journalist, but he wants to continue volunteering.
He wants to cultivate a mindset of growth, positivity and productivity among refugee communities. Whatever money the network collects as aid is spent on community projects focusing on education, healthcare and livelihood.
Despite being a multiple-time TEDx speaker, he is humble and remains closely connected to his roots. “There are no words to express how much I miss my country. I always tell myself that if I can’t help people back home, I can help them here.”
Find out about Al-Hasan Volunteer Network here: