UNHCR Malaysia

“Thank you for the internship application and we wish to inform you that you have been selected. UNHCR’s Health Unit would like to have your services.”

These two sentences meant the world to me this past February.  My summer internship in Malaysia was confirmed and it would be concentrating on urban refugee population health! This would be my first time working with The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and that too, in a field office. This UN gig was bound to be an amazing opportunity as would I learn and network with those who are already a part of it while discovering a new area of development.


UNHCR Malaysia is situated in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia’s capital. KL, with just over 1.5million people, is a true metropolis with a growing skyline, ample amounts of traffic, tourists and great food. But situated in the heart of the city, lies The UN Refugee Agency, with a blue tin roof and white walls. This would be the place I call work for the next 4 months.


My start in the Health Unit was intense and a huge learning curve. I immediately took to case work as hundreds of refugees line up outside the office gates every day in hopes of getting documents, meeting officers for their resettlement interviews, reporting family members being held in detention and more. My first case involved an older man and his wife who had fled Myanmar after the 2012 civil war and were brought into Malaysia via human traffickers. After years of paying for their travels, this person of concern was finally free. However, due to the arduous journey his health was now a concern. Furthermore, he presented with osteosarcoma on the left knee region. While surgery and chemotherapy would yield an 85% success rate, my person of concern could not afford the necessary course of treatment. So I lead my team in developing a suitable intervention and communicated with my patient via a Falam- Chin-speaking interpreter. 


Within a day I issued a Guarantee Letter, (essentially a promise to pay by the UNHCR), so that my person of concern would be able to get the surgery in a government-funded hospital. As I gave the letter to him, his wife grabbed my hands in hers and lifted them to her forehead. She kept repeating the words “Ka lung awi” to me, which translates to thank you very much. I couldn’t help but to feel my eyes filling with water and my heart swell. I had this feeling before, one of being so connected to the people and engaged in meaningful work when previously working in the field at the community level with smaller NGOs. However, to know that the UN system; the big kahuna of foreign affairs and international development, was helping to save a life and build a better future for this family, made me even prouder.


Over the weeks, I will continue to process cases and interact with persons of concern. In addition to this, I am also developing sensitivity training for community health workers who interact with HIV+ refugees. There are over 150, 000 registered asylum-seekers and refugees registered in Malaysia spanning from Sri Lanka to Somalia to Syria. But perhaps the most notable are those from Myanmar and the 7 most prominent ethnicities: Chins, Rohingyas, Myanmar Muslims, Rahkine, Burmese & Bamars, Mon, Kachins etc. Every day is a new adventure as I learn to communicate with very little English and Bahasa Malaysia while relying greatly on interpreters and non-verbals.


Being in Southeast Asia is not just all work. For play, the summer is equally exciting as weekend trips extending to East Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines and more. I’m eager to learn more about UNHCR’s internal systems and am keen to expand my internship to other areas of the agency as well, such as resettlement.




Vidya Nair is a candidate of the fourth cohort of the Master of Development Practice at the University of Waterloo. Vidya’s background is in communications and she has worked in the field of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH). Her current research interests include clean water, WASH, economic development, gender and development, and resource management.


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