18-year-old California high school student starts foundation to aid Rohingya refugees

Aaron Lee Rohingya Crisis

Aaron Lee, an 18-year-old Malaysian American high school senior, founded his own refugee aid organization for Rohingya people after meeting with a former Malaysian prime minister.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were displaced from Myanmar after the military government committed mass genocide of the ethnic minority in 2017. They sought refuge in nearby countries, and their fight for their existence continues today.

At the time, Aaron Lee was in his freshman year at Flintridge Preparatory School in California.

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“I really only had an American’s perspective of the Rohingya crisis and refugee crises, in general,” he said. “I thought there’s no way I’d be able to make an impact on this group halfway around the world.”

But his passion for humanitarian issues drove him to seek ways to help the refugees in any way he could.

High School Activist

Lee, whose parents were both born and raised in Malaysia, had traveled to Malaysia multiple times with his family to visit their home country.

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But, in June 2019, he went to Malaysia with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)’s People’s Association of Los Angeles in order to get a better understanding of its history and international relations.

He wanted to meet some of the 155,000 registered Rohingya refugees from Myanmar currently living in Malaysia and sought to understand their immediate needs from non-governmental organizations (NGOs). He also met Malaysian government officials — some of whom were the first UN ambassadors to advocate for the Rohingya.

Lee was especially inspired by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whom he had watched hold Myanmar accountable for their actions during a speech at a UN general assembly meeting.

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To summarize his trip, Lee wrote a report of his own research regarding the Rohingya Crisis, outlining their specific needs in Malaysia and worldwide. He was able to get a letter and his report to the former prime minister who wrote back to him, thanking him for his work.

Lee, determined to continue advocating for the Rohingya people, returned to Malaysia in December 2019.

“I wanted to go back because I don’t think the work that is needed can be accomplished in just a handful of trips,” he said. “It’s going to be an ongoing issue for a very long time. So I don’t see myself being done with this type of work anytime soon.”

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Lee held a meeting with Islamic Relief Malaysia to learn about the work other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) contribute to the movement and to discuss potential schooling projects in the future.

“When I first started, I had this kind of broad, vague approach of just wanting to help Rohingya and do what I can for them,” Lee said. “And in some senses, I still feel that way. But I think I’ve just started to focus more on the educational aspect of the Rohingya and trying to get them more access to education and resources like textbooks, technologies, and help them learn virtually.”

He donated 5,000 ringgit (approximately $1,200) to their organization and toured Rohingya Education Garden in Puchong, a community-based school that is partly sponsored by the Rohingya Association of Malaysia (RAM).

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Lee was planning on returning to Malaysia in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic prevented him from going at the time.

Founding of the non-governmental organization

Lee needed to find alternatives to helping the Rohingya from a distance, so he looked to his community and founded his own organization to aid the refugees.

Rohingya Aid Foundation (RAF), currently a pending 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, assists Rohingya communities in Los Angeles.

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Lee partnered with the Los Angeles Rohingya Association (LARA) to distribute newsletters to the approximately 100 Rohingya-strong community in Los Angeles and to promote the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. The two organizations also work with Rohingya students to receive scholarships for private high school education.

Lee has also held fundraisers and put the resulting donations toward sending personal protective equipment to Malaysia during the pandemic.

Eventually, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad got word of Lee’s various efforts to aid the Rohingya, and they met virtually on Nov. 11 to talk about racial discrimination and international migrant crises.

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Lee is planning on returning to Malaysia to continue his work on the ground. He is also considering ways to incorporate his organization into his education as he is currently applying for colleges.

He sees himself going into international relations and politics in the future.

Featured Image via Aaron Lee

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