By ANGELIN YEOH
IN 2010, while studying at Fairview International School Kuala Lumpur, Melora Shahabuddin was assigned to come up with her own project and complete it. As writing is something she’s passionate about, she decided to write a book.
She then turned to her mother to discuss the content.
“My mum volunteers with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. One day, she came back from work and we talked about the refugees she had met. She was able to describe everyone and everything they’d said in such detail that I had to meet them myself,” recalls Melora, 16.
With mum’s help, she spoke to refugees from Myanmar, Somalia and Afghanistan in various centres for the displaced in the Klang Valley. Their stories inspired her to pen their words in her book.
“They were very vulnerable yet they had the courage to speak to a complete stranger like me about their journey and struggles here. I was really moved by that.”
Most of the refugees she spoke to were women and children, including a nine-year-old Myanmarese girl.
After completing the book, Melora submitted her assignment and thought that was the end of it.
“But I couldn’t forget the refugees I’d spoken to. What started out as a desperate labour to get a full score became a labour of love.”
In 2011, her younger sister Sabrina found a transcript of Melora’s short stories and poems inspired by the conversations she’d had with the refugees.
“She read it and, the next day, she convinced my parents that my transcript should be published into a book. An actual book, not just one for a school assignment.”
That surprised Melora, by then a pre-university student at Taylor’s College.
“Honestly, I never thought much of my book. I didn’t expect it to get published at all because that seemed like a far-fetched idea. But my family was really supportive of it and I thought, ‘Okay, let’s do this.’”
As a result, When We Take Offwas published and Melora held a book launch at the Islamic Arts Centre in KL recently. For the launch, the centre was decorated with colourful paper planes, and Melora explains why.
“My siblings were playing with paper planes at home. I watched how they would take their time to carefully construct each plane. They had fun with the planes for awhile but as soon as something interesting came on on the TV, they would just leave the planes on the floor.”
To Melora, the way paper flits and lands on the ground is symbolic of how refugees think they can escape the hardships in their homeland, only to find themselves stuck with different problems in a new country.
“The paper planes also represent the refugees’ fragile state and how they are just waiting for someone to pick them up so they can lead a purposeful life once again.”
When We Take Off contains short stories, poems and a miniature play. Its young author fervently hopes that these do justice to the stories that were told to her.
“I was scared that I might not able to convey the plight of the refugees and what they have to go through. That was the biggest challenge of publishing this book.”
Melora hopes her book will help readers understand the refugees’ struggle and perhaps take time to reflect upon what they can do to help.
“I want readers to be able to feel what it is like for these displaced people.”
When We Take Off is priced at RM60. Proceeds from the sale of the 120-page book will be channelled to various refugee bodies that deal with children’s education. There are plans for Melora to go on a book tour.
“It’s my first book and I definitely hope to publish more in the future. I am amazed by the opportunity to do this and, honestly, it still feels unbelievable.”