“Ooh la la la, it’s the way that we rock when we’re doing our thing,
Ooh la la la, it’s the natural LA that the refugees bring.”
The popular lyrics from the song Fu-Gee-La by the Fugees, a well-known American hip-hop group shed some light on the prejudices against refugees, their liberation and empowerment.
On a similar note, Fugeelah, a Malaysian non-profit social enterprise which initially raised funds for free education of refugee children and youth at the Fugee School, has since evolved into a self-sustaining lifestyle brand.
The two entities are separate as Fugee School provides education for refugees and marginalised communities in Malaysia whereas Fugeelah is the business arm of the organisation. Founded by Deborah Henry in 2017 (who also co-founded Fugee School, ten years ago), the name Fugeelah is actually derived from the famous hip-hop anthem Fu Gee La, with an extra ‘h’ at the end to give it a Malaysian flare. The idea behind Fugeelah is not just a business to financially support the school but it also provides employment opportunities and hands-on training for refugees.
“Fugeelah was born out of the circumstances of Malaysia, in which refugees aren’t allowed to work legally, and as an organisation, we’re constantly struggling to raise funds. The objective is to become less dependent on outside sources of funding and we can sustain it ourselves,” says Deborah.
Paving The Way For Entrepreneurship
Fugeelah’s specialises in selling handcrafted jewellery, created and perfected by Fugee School students. Deborah had always dreamt of starting her own business and after years of mulling over the idea, she finally got down to it with the help of her two friends, Amy from Batik Boutique and Franki Turner from Frankitas. With the UNCHR, Rotary Club Subang and Franki’s business model, Deborah got the necessary funds and pro bono skills through their extensive network to start up, Fugeelah.
“I always wanted to start a business but I just didn’t know what sort. So I guess with my background, it was always fashion. So we started off by using the kids’ artwork since I wanted the essence of the school to be involved. We printed on scarves and bags at first. Then came the idea of jewellery because it’s pretty and it’s something that people like to own more of, unlike a bag which they can use the same one for years. Jewellery is accessible and affordable, and most importantly, people like to constantly change it up.”
“Right now, we are focusing on jewellery and some collaborations (Fugeelah X). Last year, we did a collaboration with Uniqlo. We printed our students’ artwork onto the t-shirts and it was a very successful campaign.”
Deborah also points out that Fugeelah is a stepping stone for the refugee students as it is a platform to expand their skills and knowledge.
“Currently we have four girls who work, we call them the Fugeelah Girls. There are many different processes involved in making jewellery such as wire work and designing. We source pieces from all over the world and they put them together to create these intricate earrings.”
“Not only that, but they also learn the business and hands-on skills. When we do bazaars, they take charge of selling the jewellery. This allows them to take up people skills, marketing, sales and inventory management.”
A Social Movement, Not A Charity
When it comes to non-profit organisations, especially ones that deal with refugees, a common public misconception is that such entities are always charitable organisations – Deborah is quick to dismiss such a notion and to reiterate that this is not the case with Fugeelah as it is a social enterprise.
“At the end of the day, we don’t want a pity purchase. If someone is going to make a pity purchase, they are only going to support you once and not come back the next time. They are going to be like ‘Oh kesian. Let me just buy something to help them out’ and we don’t want to be that brand.”
“We are a brand that wants to appeal to all customers with our products and not just the social impact. One of the taglines that we often use is ‘Little pleasures, big impact’. I’m sure a lot of people love jewellery and buying our accessories, which comes with an affordable price tag, they gain that ‘little pleasure’. Not only that, the impact of the purchase they make actually goes beyond their enjoyment and changes lives.”
The word ‘charity’ may be destabilising and counter-productive as recipients may end up being wholly reliant. When it comes to a charitable cause, the general consensus is that handouts and donations have to be given to the needy. Deborah has no intentions of making this the norm with Fugeelah. Instead of making refugee students feel like they are victims of their own circumstances or incapable, Deborah aims to empower them.
“Our vision is to champion equitable outcomes with and by refugees. We’re very egalitarian in that we work together and support their ideas on how to better their lives. We’re equal partners in this organisation. We bring value and ideas hand-in-hand to find better outcomes. Fugeelah aims to create an environment where people can flourish despite their backgrounds.”
“The only difference is that as a Malaysian, I have rights that they don’t. So, in order to produce those results, it is inevitable that I would have to use my assets such as my status and network. However, it is essentially their values, skill set and ideas that bring success,” adds Deborah, who is widely known as Miss Universe Malaysia 2011 and Miss Malaysia World 2007. She eventually left her modelling career to focus on helping refugee children in Malaysia.
Making A Change
When asked about future aspirations of Fugeelah, Deborah states that the plan is to ensure that it is able to tackle the mindset of many people to create a proper social impact and not just solely self-sustenance.
“We want Fugeelah to be a successful global brand that speaks of who we are. We want to know that the purchases made have an overarching effect on how people view refugees and marginalised communities. It makes the purchase more special for both parties.”
As Sir Richard Branson said, “Doing good is good business”. There are a lot of ways to do good in the world of business. Some opt to make a profit and donate a part of that and some, like Fugeelah, choose to ingrain in their brand a social cause to spread awareness that could not only change mindsets but also lives!
*Featured image sourced from Fugeelah