Deborah Henry with the children of Fugee school.

Malaysian Deborah Henry is said to be ‘Beauty with a Golden Heart’ as she advocates on children’s rights for World Vision and refugee rights for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Through her voice, she blazes a path to empower the underprivileged, giving voice to the voiceless, and spearheading a positive change we need in the world today.

An equal opportunity for all

Growing up in a mixed household of Malaysian Indian and Irish, Deborah thanked her parents for taking ‘the best from best worlds’ from each and inculcating the respective values in her. “That has also taught me that ticking a box is unnecessary because we humans are more for than a simplistic label, and that denies so much more of our values and qualities.”

During her youth, she studied political science and economics where she found her conviction about social justice. Besides that, she came across an opportunity in the form of pageantry and that was also what led her to become the activist she is today.

Timely opportunities

Sharing her past, Deborah said she had never wanted to become a model or a beauty queen. She was usually the ‘tomboy’ of the school, and would always be hanging at the basketball court, or the track and field.

Deborah was crowned as Miss World Malaysia in 2007 and Miss Universe Malaysia in 2011.

When she was 15, a modelling agency scouted her from the streets — “I guess that was the beginning of my career in the world of fashion,” she revealed. She had also modelled for a year before attending a university in Australia.

After she graduated and returned to Malaysia, she dabbled in her first beauty pageant in 2007. “I was persuaded by my friends and family. While I initially hesitated, I quickly warmed up to the idea because I believed it would be a great platform for me.”

Deborah was crowned twice, as Miss World Malaysia in 2007 and Miss Universe Malaysia in 2011. To her, being able to represent the country at an international arena was a humbling and eye-opening experience. “I had always looked at the pageants as a means to create a more visible platform for me to champion the causes that were near and dear to my heart.”

When she was crowned, she instantly knew the responsibilities that came with it. To her, the crown had opened many doors, and looking back, Deborah disclosed that one of her important achievements in life was the opportunity “to pursue my passions in championing the social causes that I do today – whether it be for refugees, children or women.”

Igniting the passion for learning

During the early days of her career, she was exposed to the plight of child refugees in Malaysia when she hosted an inhouse documentary series for the UNHCR.

In 2009, Deborah co-founded Fugee School, a non-profit education hub for refugee children alongside her friends Shikeen Halibullah and Shafie Sharif.

In 2009, responding to the plights of the refugees and their rights to fair and equal opportunities to education, Deborah co-founded Fugee School alongside her friends Shikeen Halibullah and Shafie Sharif, a Somali community leader. Fugee School is a non-profit education hub for child refugees.

The school aims to ignite an endless passion for learning in every child. “We want every Fugee student to realise their full potential and value by equipping them with the right academic, creative and life-skills in an environment free from discrimination and exclusion,” said Deborah.

Since 2009, Deborah has positively impacted the lives of 400 refugee children and their families. In return, the children had also impacted her. “These children were fighting for life’s necessities — from food and clothing to education and sports. I vowed to not sit back and let this happen in our backyard.”

Later in 2017, Deborah founded Fugeelah to help the school self-sustain while meeting its increasing demand from the growing refugee community. Fugeelah is a social enterprise that works with refugees and marginalised Malaysian communities. The goals are to provide skills training, and employment opportunities for young refugees, as well as to create a sustainable revenue stream to fund Fugee School operations.

A critical operation

Feeling deeply attached with the children at Fugee School, Deborah opined that children regardless of gender, race or nationality are the future of our planet. “Each and every one of them deserves a fair shot at a better life and also hopefully for the rest of us through their future successes.”

She also shared that some children from the school have gone on to great success. “I am proud to say that, and their stories is what motivated me to push for bigger and better things for Fugee school.”

Through her work with the children, she believed that it has benefitted her more as working with the refugee children has taught her many life lessons. “Chief amongst these is gratitude. There is always going to be someone prettier, taller, smarter and better, so if we keep comparing ourselves to others there will be no end.”

Initially, Deborah was exposed to the plight of the child refugees in Malaysia when she hosted an inhouse documentary series for the UNHCR.

She said it is essential to not compare one another and just simply be the best version of yourself. “Appreciate the smallest things in life, be open to seeing life through the eyes of another and it has taught me courage and resilience.”

Deborah also added that as a human living on earth, “we are all more alike than we know and if we can simply overcome our prejudices, I think we can all create a brighter tomorrow.”

Speaking on what the future holds for her, she said that it will be how she chooses it to be. “It is in the hands of our youth, and my role is to walk with the youth to support those who are underprivileged. I want to make sure that we are doing all that we can to give them the access and opportunities that they deserve so that they can reach their full potential and leave a positive impact.”